BEMIDJI -- Older students in Bemidji Area Schools have their first few weeks of learning within the hybrid model under their belts -- a learning model which required school officials to get a bit creative due to the restrictions.

Desks are spaced out, students are walking down one-way hallways, and many are eating lunch in a tarp-covered gymnasium. In a typical year, students at the middle school are divided into pods of around 60 or so students. This year, the pods are further divided into cohorts of about 15 students. Students are only interacting with other students within their pod, there are about three pods per grade.

“We have 600 kids in school right now,” Bemidji Middle School Principal Drew Hildenbrand said during the first week of school. Ordinarily, around 1,100 students are in the middle school during a typical year. He said the goal of cohort separation is to promote “safety over schedules,” making for easier contact tracing, so teachers know exactly which kids were in which area in which seats at any given time.

Student schedules flip-flop between “A Week” and “B Week” wherein half of the school’s capacity is learning at home, while the other half is learning in the building.

From the students' point of view

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School officials had to get creative to fulfill requirements lessening time spent by students in hallways.

Students are not using their lockers between classes, instead, backpacks are temporarily allowed.

Passing through the hallways, students will see stickers indicating hallway traffic directions, hand sanitizer stations, and posters with the slogan, “Lumberjacks practice social distancing.”

Their friends will be wearing face masks.

Sixth, seventh and eighth graders are sequestered within different wings of the building to avoid traveling long distances -- the three grades even have three separate entrances.

Educators' perspectives

Susan Freeman is an eighth-grade math teacher in the Bemidji Middle School Zeta pod -- she has around 15 students in A week in the classroom and 15 students in B week at home in any given class -- usually four or five per day. The cohort sizes may be fewer than 15, depending on how many students elected to do full distance learning per cohort.

In the mornings, Freeman generally releases a pre-recorded video lecture for students who are at home.

“I’m not doing anything synchronous with my class with the kids at home,” Freeman said. “More of a flipped classroom model,” she described it. Students who are at home can work on the recorded lectures on their own time, and then schedule Google Meets with her to ask questions during scheduled class time.

In between classes, she sanitizes every desk.

Freeman described the kids looking, “a little shell shocked” on the first day of school. “They were really quiet, I think it’s because it’s all so new.”

“We’re going to roll with it, we’re going to do it,” she told them, joking with the class that the situation will be a great story to tell their grandchildren about someday.

Hildenbrand described the atmosphere during the first week of school as, “similar, but half full. With half of the students, you take away some of the anxiety from the busyness, but we've added some anxiety because half the kids are online.”

He seemed optimistic about the learning model and expressed that he thinks while inconvenient, it is better that students are in the building under current restrictions than entirely at home.

“It has played out how we’ve planned it thus far,” he said. “I think the proof will be in the pudding. Are we going to meet the same needs? I think that’s the professional question in all of this, can we push as hard, as rigorously, during this time, over an extended period? I can promise you, we’re going to try.”