BEMIDJI -- While the governor has given relatively clear guidelines for learning models based on case numbers per 10,000, the decision to switch learning models in public schools is not as cut and dry as it might seem, according to Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz.

Lutz said he hopes to clarify the decision-making process for area residents.

In the past few days, Lutz said he has received a number of questions and concerns from area families as to why the school has not yet switched learning models, as the current Beltrami County case numbers per 10,000 now seem to warrant it.

Data points

“What I’m hearing is people wanting to know what and when we’re going to move into the new model because the numbers are there, and why we haven’t done so yet,” he said. “The answer to that is first of all, we can’t rely on just one number, one data point. Even if we had only one data point, that data point would have to be the numbers that the Minnesota Department of Health hands out for schools, and that number comes out every Thursday.”

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The numbers given to schools from the Department of Health is a couple of weeks behind the Beltrami County rolling case numbers. Because those numbers are behind, those numbers are lower than the county numbers that come out, which are currently rising, reflecting everything up to the day before.

“Why are they behind a couple of weeks behind? That’s another question I’ve been hearing,” Lutz said. “The Department of Health needs to vet those numbers to make sure that they’re attributed to the correct counties and the correct zip codes.”

He added that the numbers are also checked to ensure they are sustainable and not a fluke or misrepresentation.

“Those are the numbers that schools more than anything are supposed to be looking at,” Lutz said. Up until Oct. 8, the number from MDH for Beltrami County was 10.19 per 10,000, and as of the release of new numbers on Thursday afternoon, it has jumped up to 23.2, surpassing the 20 per 10,000 case level warranting hybrid for all students.

Since these learning model changes are a lot of work and added stress for families and educators, Lutz emphasized the importance of not taking these moves lightly and making sure the numbers warrant staying in a certain learning model for a while.

He also mentioned that if the district is recommended to move to a full hybrid model, it may switch to distance learning across the board as a preventative measure.

Districts are also supposed to follow guidance from the Northwest Minnesota Regional Support team, also known as RAPID response teams.

Lutz said the Bemidji Area Schools had a meeting with the team last week to discuss switching models. At that time, it was determined to be unnecessary. Another meeting is scheduled for Monday afternoon.

This team has told districts to look at multiple data points before making a decision, Lutz said, including age demographics in active cases, amount of community spread, and sectors affected.

“The particular age demographic that is being hit the hardest is the 20s to 30s age group, not the age group that would reflect students in a K-12 school,” he said. “If you’re having some spikes in your county but it’s not affecting school groups, you’re probably okay, that is another data point.”

“We’re not seeing any community spread, at all, in our schools,” Lutz added, crediting social distancing efforts and mask-wearing. “A very encouraging data point is that it’s working in our schools are we’re not seeing outbreaks through community spread.”

Currently, the cases within the Bemidji Area Schools district is still hovering around ten. There is no evidence that anyone has caught COVID-19 within Bemidji Area Schools.

Safety in schools, family cooperation

In order to prevent community spread within schools, officials need families to be on board. Lutz wanted to remind families to participate fully in contact tracing if the need arises.

He also mentioned the crucial need to stay home if you have been tested for COVID-19 and are awaiting results, even if you feel better, citing a recent incident in the district where a student returned to school while unknowingly positive.

What’s next?

Schools are expected to turn to the Minnesota Department of Health numbers and regional support teams for advice when it comes to school COVID-19 safety and reopening.

“It’s a matter of looking at these numerous criteria, numerous data points, and then working with county health, Sanford Health professionals, the Minnesota Department of Health and then these regional response teams,” Lutz said. “If they support our decision, then we are on the right path, and as of this week, we are still getting their support in the decisions we are making. At this point in time, we are not yet heading toward a more restrictive model.”

When the numbers warrant a change and the support team is in agreement, Lutz said the announcement will likely be given to families a few days in advance, so teachers and students can finish out the week in the current model -- unless a spike within schools demands a quicker response.