BEMIDJI -- Instead of a blanket statewide decision, Gov. Tim Walz offered up a more localized solution on Thursday for school reopening -- children around Minnesota will go back to school in different methods depending on local COVID-19 case numbers.

What does this mean for Bemidji?

Under Walz’s Safe Learning Plan, districts will be able to start school Sept. 8 under the learning model -- in-person, hybrid or online -- determined by the COVID-19 biweekly case rate by county of residence. Currently, Beltrami County’s case rate would allow Bemidji Area Schools to open under a hybrid model for all students.

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz would like the community’s help in changing this.

He pleaded with the community to follow COVID-19 prevention guidelines on Friday, so by the time September comes, young Bemidjians will be allowed to go to school in-person.

“We’re appealing to our community, that if we want kids in school, please let’s all work together to get those COVID numbers down, by practicing the guidelines put out by the CDC and the Department of Health so we can get kids back in school and keep our businesses open,” he said. “We’re letting the data speak for us, in every county, in every school district. And even though that data is going to change a lot, it’s much better as an approach than to be political about it.

“We really don’t know what it’s going to look like. We are definitely trending right now in the wrong direction, and that’s a bit concerning.”

Districts have until the week before school to release their plans to families, and many will likely wait until it's closer to the deadline, because as case numbers change, plans will too.

“We probably can’t make a final determination until awfully close to the start of the school year, because we’ll have to base it on those rolling 14-day averages,” Lutz said. “We will try to do it before that, but if we do it too soon, things could change too much, but we’re hoping to at least come up with some of our plans in terms of health and safety guidance and what things will look like for each of the scenarios.”

The three plans, and who will use them

Local school officials have spent the past month preparing three different plans for back to school learning models, and Lutz thinks all of them will be used at some point.

Walz’s plan allows different schools to implement different learning models, based on county numbers.

Districts whose counties have less than nine cases per 10,000 over 14 days may have in-person learning for all students. Between 10-19 cases, in-person learning for elementary students and hybrid learning for secondary students is allowed. Hybrid learning will be used for all students for counties with 20-29 cases per 10,000.

Between 30-49 cases, hybrid learning for elementary students and distance learning for secondary students will be allowed.

Distance learning for all students will be implemented if there are more than 50 cases per 10,000 in a county over 14 days.

Since the numbers come from a 14-day data window, they have the possibility to shift after 14 days.

“This school year we may be expected to move from one model of operating school to the next with very short turnaround time,” Lutz said. “If we open as hybrid and then have a sudden spike in the county or in one or two of our buildings, then we’ll have to go into distance learning, at least for those buildings, if not the whole district. If we can get our numbers down and we can get kids in buildings, we’ll go back to that model. We’re looking at the potential for all three scenarios and we would like to be able to make sure people have a good understanding as to what that will look like.”

Schools may be able to elect a more restrictive model, but they cannot elect a less restrictive model than allowed based on their case numbers without approval from local public health officials, the Department of Health and the Department of Education.

For example, Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School has already announced its students will begin the year with distance learning only, regardless of case numbers.

Charter schools are expected to follow the same guidelines. Private schools are not required to follow them.

In either of the scenarios involving in-person learning, students will be required to wear masks for at least a portion of their school days.

The governor mentioned during his press conference Thursday, all students and teachers -- including private schools -- will be provided with a reusable mask and schools will be provided with a handful of disposable masks per student.

Opting for distance learning

Families who wish to keep their children in distance learning regardless of the final choice may elect to do so.

"Throughout this whole process, whatever scenario or learning plan that we will open with or shift into during the year, I want to remind parents that they still have choice,” Lutz said. “A lot of parents are still pretty nervous, we’re hearing from our surveys, they’re nervous about sending their children to school in the beginning of the year.”

Forms to sign up for the “Family Choice Distance Learning Election Option” will be available soon on the Bemidji Area Schools website.

“Family choice and parent voice are important and we will recognize the wishes of parents if they choose distance learning as the best option for their children,” Lutz said.

More questions than answers

“Whenever we have any sort of answers from the governor or the Department of Education in the form of an executive order or a mandate or guidance, we often have more questions that come out of that,” Lutz explained.

The questions popping up now, he said, include defining who “secondary students” are, in the case of split-age learning models.

“How do we define secondary? Is that 9-12, 7-12 or 6-12? So the (school) board is wondering, what do we do with sixth graders? Are they elementary or are they high school? So we’re still trying to figure out what that means from the department of education,” he said.

“What do we do if we do start seeing -- maybe we have one or two cases in a school building -- how do we handle that? And we’re still working on that as well. Those are the kinds of questions that we’re getting right now.”

What’s next?

Lutz encouraged families to keep an eye on the ISD 31 website, as the COVID-19 situation is ever-changing.

In the upcoming weeks, the school reopening plan, as well as shorter versions of the other possible scenarios will be uploaded to the Bemidji Area Schools website, Lutz said.

“If the need arises for changes, we will communicate directly with you. We ask for your patience as we continue to navigate an unknown situation, together,” he said to parents in a letter Friday. “We also ask you to keep a close watch on all the ways you receive official communication from ISD 31 and from your individual school.”

More surveys will also be coming to the parents and families of Bemidji students.

“We’ve been doing a lot of surveys, and we’ll need to do more of that,” he said. “I don’t think we can over-communicate in terms of sharing information, so when we get the information we will share it."

Other schools

Other area schools whose plans are online as of Friday morning:

Red Lake Nation Schools: The Red Lake School board will hold a special meeting at 2 p.m. Aug. 5 to make a decision on the model used to start school this fall. The board is asking for community input at this time.

“My stance on the situation is to start with distance learning for all our students and monitor the situation going forward,” said Red Lake School Board Chairman Chris Jourdain in a Facebook post.

Blackduck Public Schools: According to the Blackduck Public School website, a local decision has not been reached, but information will be made available on the site soon.

Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig School: Bug-O-Nay-Ge-Shig will begin the school year with a distance learning model, according to information on the school website. The school will offer every family an internet subscription and provide a computer for every student, the announcement said.