BEMIDJI -- Distance learning -- what’s working, what isn’t working so well, and who it is affecting, was a major topic of discussion during Monday night’s Bemidji Area School’s Board of Education meeting, the final one held before Election Day and the start of the second quarter of the school year.

Later in the meeting, the board also discussed the current learning model with representatives from Sanford and Beltrami County Public Health, who came to the consensus that students are currently safe in in-person and hybrid models due to the lack of community spread.

What’s going on with distance learning?

While health and school officials continue to stress that schools may be the safest place for students right now, more and more families are opting for distance learning -- more than the distance learning team is currently able to handle -- as COVID-19 cases in the area rise.

District Curriculum Coordinator Colleen Cardenuto said Monday that 951 Bemidji students are enrolled in distance learning, with 330 in grades K-5, 278 in grades 6-8, and 243 in grades 9-12.

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Due to staffing issues there is currently a waiting list for elementary students to enroll in distance learning for the next quarter. The staff is also struggling with families wanting to change back and forth frequently within learning models, and keeping track of students who may be falling through the cracks.

A waiting list isn't necessary at the middle and high school levels, as students who choose distance learning remain with their regular teachers whether at home or in-person.

This also causes stress on staff members.

“Teaching three models at one time is hard,” Cardenuto said. “That model allows kids to move in and out of models, but it’s definitely a stressor for our staff.”

Staff members are being spread thin as the amount of students shifting models has increased.

“With the number of students that have enrolled, staffing has become an issue,” Cardenuto said. “We would have to move a staff member from a classroom into the distance learning model, and that is just not as easily done.”

She is not sure of a solution for this problem, because there are no resources to hire another staff person, and taking a classroom teacher away from their classroom to teach online is not the best solution for the children in that class.

“I don’t have a solution right now, because we’re not moving folks about,” she said, adding that staffing changes would likely come with the first quarter, around the beginning of November.

Distance learning is requiring more from teachers this year than last spring, because the requirements are now much more rigorous. Students are meeting live on video with teachers multiple times per day.

“The rigor has risen, definitely compared to last year,” Cardenuto said, “and I say that because logging in is a must.”

“In the distance learning model, it’s much easier to get lost,” she explained. “We had people constantly trying to contact anyone that was not attending and I think we got down to where we only had 12 that had disappeared for 15 days.”

The district has a policy where students who are inactive and do not attend for 15 days in a row are dropped. “We have had a few that are connecting for one day,” she continued. “If they connect for one day out of 15 we have to keep them in the system.”

Warning letters were sent out to families nearing the 15-day mark, and some replied stating their child had not logged on because they did not understand how to use the Google Meets platform.

“The last thing we want to do is lose our students,” Cardenuto said. “It’s going to be very difficult next year if our students have not been with us.”

“Those that are sticking with us and doing a great job, they’re going to be fine. Those that are disappearing on us, the catch-up game is going to be hard,” she added.

A lack of capable devices is still an issue for some families. Schools were given CARES act funds to order devices, but they have been on back-order since May. The district has placed two orders of 1,000 devices that have not yet been filled.

“We need them here,” Cardenuto said.

Disparities within the Indian Education Program

Sonia Wadena, Director of the Bemidji Area Schools Indian Education Program, spoke about the current disparities within the program, and the impacts different learning models are having on Native American families.

Wadena explained there are currently 939 Native American students within the district, with even more if students who identify as multiple races are included.

Nearly half have chosen distance learning -- 439 students -- making up a large chunk of the total number of distance learners district wide.

Concerningly, the district is down 137 Native American students this year.

Wadena said while she understands why many Native American families are choosing distance learning, it is still difficult.

“Our Native American community is at greater risk of contracting COVID-19 due to underlying health factors and access to medical care,” she said. “The reason we are concerned about the number of distance learners is we are spending a disproportionate amount of time working with our distance learners at this time.”

She said program staff are seeing issues with technology skill sets, attendance, internet access, adult supervision, access to a quiet place to study and food insecurity.

She said after teachers have tried unsuccessfully to connect with a student, program staff have been making porch visits to remind families of expectations and explain technology issues.

“We are in a supportive role, not in a punitive role, and we don’t want that line to get blurred,” Wadena said. “Probably 10% of our students are taking up 90% of our resources in terms of service and it’s really to try to educate the families on ‘these are the expectations,’ because it’s different than last spring.”

“We’re overwhelmed right now, I hear it from the staff daily,” she added.

COVID-19 and learning models

Dr. David Wilcox of Sanford Medical Center addressed the board, giving his input on the current learning model situation.

“So far, the schools have done a great job,” he said. “To date, although students show up at school with COVID-19, it is not spreading within the school, and to me that’s part of our larger triggers, as to when we might have to change your management of education.”

“Kids are probably safer in schools than at home, because that’s where the spread is occurring,” he added.

Wilcox mentioned family and friend parties and get-togethers, weddings, funerals and other smaller gatherings have been the largest conduit for virus spread in the area.

“What goes on in the home and the family gatherings we chose to have has a larger impact than you imagine,” Wilcox said.

State guidelines recommend a distance learning model for all students in counties with case rates of over 50, but the shift in learning models depends on various other data points, such as whether or not there is community spread within the school buildings.

When the time is right: Schools discuss data behind potential learning model shifts

Wilcox said while the numbers alone indicate the need to switch to distance learning, they might not be the best representative.

“They represent a snapshot in time that may be a moving target,” he said.

The full school board meeting can be viewed on the school board's YouTube channel.