BEMIDJI -- While nothing concrete will be decided until Gov. Tim Walz and the Department of Education release further guidance at the end of the month, the Bemidji Area Schools board of education went over potential plans for school reopening during its board meeting Monday night.
Board member Ann Long Voelkner seemed to express the thoughts of many when she said, “how do we make the best of a not-good situation?”
In a July 6 interview with the Pioneer, Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz said the district, as well as all districts throughout the state, are preparing for three scenarios.
None of the three reopening scenarios outlined by the governor will come without challenges.
During Monday’s meeting, he gave a presentation to the board further clarifying the three possibilities: an in-person model, a hybrid model and an online learning model.
Board members seemed grateful for the information, but acknowledged it is difficult to plan for the fall when waiting for more guidance.
“It’s great that we’re getting this information, and we like to have it as early as possible, but until we know what the governor is going to put out, it’s challenging to make other decisions,” said board member Jeff Lind.
“That’s one of the reasons that we are giving you a very broad overview right now,” Lutz explained. “It would be pointless to get too deep into the weeds if you will until we know which direction we actually are going.”
Board member Sarah Young said she appreciated learning about all of the options, because, “it could be that we’re using all three throughout the year depending on how the virus is going.”
A broad overview
Lutz explained the distance learning model, which may be implemented if COVID-19 situations worsen significantly -- will look differently than the distance learning methods of this spring.
He displayed a potential schedule for distance learning, which would be held in a more synchronous format than in the spring, meaning students would all work on lessons and activities simultaneously in real-time.
“Students who are distance learning will actually have a full day schedule to work with,” he said. “We want this to be more rigorous than what we did this spring if we go into a distance learning model.”
This likely poses a need for even more devices, as multi-student families will need individual devices to complete their course work at the same time.
Lutz said Bemidji Area Schools will conduct a telephone survey this week to find out what families will need in terms of technology and broadband access in the event of a hybrid or distance learning scenario.
He also mentioned curbside meal service and childcare for emergency workers would continue in this scenario.
Gene Dillon was then used as an example for board members to understand how a hybrid model might work. The hybrid scenario involves a rotation of students in the school and students distance learning at home to ensure the buildings are socially distanced at 50% capacity. This model will likely be implemented if COVID-19 situations worsen.
Lutz displayed a map of the school with six-foot-diameter bubbles in each classroom to show where desks could be placed, as well as which rooms could be turned into classroom spaces if needed, including the lunchroom, media center or gymnasium.
“We’re learning how many students we can have basically if we go to a hybrid model,” he said.
This model prompted a discussion by board members as to whether younger students could partake in in-person learning spread out throughout the district’s buildings, while high school students learn online. Lutz said this is something being looked into.
The board also explored a potential in-person learning model, which would only be implemented if state COVID-19 metrics continue to stabilize or improve.
“If we’re allowed to do (in-person learning), it’ll be because there will be less restrictions. Schools will be held to less strict guidelines rather than the six-foot requirement,” Lutz explained. “We should try to follow that six-foot metric as much as possible, but that won’t be strictly enforced. Neither will the 50% capacity on buses and facilities be required.”
In this model, schools must restrict non-essential visitors, and provide enough supplies so students do not have to share classroom materials. Students will not be allowed to congregate and will be directed directly to their classrooms.
The district will also need a plan in place in case a teacher or student becomes ill.
This model will still be a hybrid model, Lutz explained, because families who require or request distance learning will be accommodated.
After his presentation, Lutz opened up to the board for questions -- they had many, although many cannot be answered fully at this time.
Student board representative Abigail Enquist asked how things might work at the high school, especially for hands-on courses like band or woodworking. Lutz said these questions are still up in the air, but mentioned things at the high school might look different than in other schools.
Schedules may look personalized for each student depending on their courses, especially at the high school, Lutz added.
Board member Jeff Haack asked board members to consider what their role in this reopening process should be, bringing up whether the board should consider implementing a policy requiring face masks.
“Are there going to be staff who say they are not comfortable coming back in any of the three scenarios?” Board member Carol Johnson asked. “I’m very concerned about our staff.”
Board member John Gonzalez echoed this concern asking, “What if one teacher gets sick, do all of those students have to self-quarantine for two weeks?”
Gonzalez also proposed reassessing the community. In an original district survey, “67% said they'd send their kids to school for sure, but that was back when there were only 20 cases in the community,” he said.
Lutz said he hoped to understand more about the concerns of community members during virtual listening sessions in upcoming weeks.
The governor -- in consultation with the Minnesota Department of Health and Minnesota Department of Education -- will determine and announce the scenario model under which schools may reopen by the end of the week of July 27.
The full July 20 board of education meeting can be viewed on the Bemidji Area Schools YouTube channel.