BEMIDJI -- Days ahead of the new school year for Bemidji Area Schools students, one more announcement came from the district: all middle and high school students will not come to school on Wednesdays and instead participate in distance learning for the day.
Superintendent Tim Lutz described the most recent decision as, “just one more change in a constantly changing landscape.
“It probably won’t be the last change,” he added. “We are constantly learning about the nature of the pandemic, we are constantly changing based on numbers in the state and in our county.”
The reason for the new change is twofold, Lutz said.
“One is to deep clean buildings, and another one is to allow teachers the time they need to really focus on the distance learning piece and to make videos that kids can download when they’re at home and to reach out to families, students and parents who are struggling with distance learning,” he explained.
Wednesdays will still be counted as full school days for students in grades 6-12 -- all students will still have coursework to complete and must be ready to submit their work when it is due. Teachers will still report to work to answer student and family distance learning questions and prepare video lessons. School support staff will also report to work for duties ranging from student support, food service and deep cleaning.
Earlier in the summer, the district had looked at distance learning days as an option for all students K-12, but decided against it due to potential childcare issues.
“We were looking at this as an option -- a midweek day that would be more of a distance day -- about a month ago, because a lot of school districts are doing this,” Lutz explained. “We have childcare issues in Bemidji. We don’t want to burden families with one day a week where a lot of families are stuck with childcare concerns, so we stayed away from that.”
Then, more families opted for distance learning than expected, with a spike in the last week. This changed things.
The original plan was to create a distance learning team across the board -- certain teachers who are assigned to work only with the group of distance learners. That is still in place for the younger students, but for students in the high school, where there may only be one calculus teacher, it wasn’t feasible.
“That one teacher can’t be on a distance learning team, that teacher has to do everything, teach all of the cohorts of students -- the students who happen to be in the classroom on the hybrid model that week, the students who happen to be at home that week on the hybrid model, and all of the students who are doing distance learning,” he said.
At the high school and middle school levels, there will essentially be three cohorts of students -- hybrid plan students who are in the classroom for the week, hybrid plan students who are in remote learning mode that week, and full-time distance learning students who are never in the classroom. Teachers will need to work with all three groups.
“There is just not enough time in the day for teachers to do everything they need to do to prepare lessons, to be on the phone, to be writing emails, to be creating videos and to be interacting with students online -- and to do all of those things well,” Lutz said.
The only solution around that -- implement a distance learning day for middle and high school students, he said.
Lutz acknowledges the challenges a last-minute decision brings but said the large jump in families opting for distance learning necessitated it.
“Our numbers are crazy and much higher than we expected -- 15% of the district opted for distance learning -- that’s over 800 students,” Lutz said. “It’s challenging to have to do it right before school starts, but we needed to do it.”
Students may still opt-in for distance learning, but as the online deadline has passed, they must do so by calling the district registration office.
It’s not yet clear how a typical day will shake out for teachers, as many subjects lend themselves differently to online learning. Sometimes courses will be asynchronous, meaning students could complete the tasks whenever works for them, and sometimes synchronous, where students all have an online lecture at a designated time -- or a mix of both.
“It will probably look different for every discipline or class,” he said.
“This is a really massive undertaking,” Lutz said of what he called “a school within a school system.”
He compared the number of students distance learning in the district to the number of students in his district when he was the superintendent of Kelliher Public Schools -- “It’s almost three Kelliher schools put together.”
There isn’t yet a set-in-stone end date for the Wednesday distance learning days. “We will have to wait and see how it goes,” Lutz said.
Lutz added he appreciates the resilience shown by students and staff, and hopes it will continue.
“It’s been a challenging job getting ready to start school with all of the moving parts,” Lutz said. “The one constant right now is change.”