BEMIDJI -- Continuing discussion of the status of the current Bemidji Area Schools learning model -- elementary in person, secondary in hybrid -- loomed large during the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education meeting Monday evening.

No changes were made during the meeting, however, Superintendent Tim Lutz said he and school principals would meet with public health officials on Nov. 17, and that learning model changes could spring from this regional support meeting.

Lutz began by thanking students and staff for being vigilant in following the COVID-19 guidelines currently in place in schools.

“We have learned that what we are doing, because we are doing it well and because everyone is doing a good job, that it is working,” he said. Schools are not the super spreaders everyone thought they would be. Schools are a very controlled environment, in fact, one of the most controlled environments in any community.”

Lutz said, to the district’s knowledge, there have still been no instances of community spread within Bemidji schools.

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“That being said, I do want to acknowledge that our numbers in the county are skyrocketing, and that is alarming, for everybody. It is a concern,” Lutz stated.

Lutz said the most recent numbers he has received from the Minnesota Department of Health, which is two weeks behind, indicated that the county’s two-week rolling average of cases per 10,000 is in the upper 60s. The initial guidelines from Gov. Tim Walz released in August indicated that areas with an average of over 50 cases per 10,000 should enact full distance learning, however, later guidance has shown that may not be necessary without community spread within schools.

Looking at updated numbers, Lutz said, Beltrami County is at 128 cases per 10,000 as a 14-day rolling average.

“Every time the numbers have gone up, I’ve received calls and emails from concerned parents and other individuals, wondering what our plans are, so one thing I’d like to reiterate tonight is that when we saw the original set of numbers that the department of health and the governor came out with this summer, these were guidelines for starting the school year. Now that we’ve started the school year, one of the most important metrics we must consider is how we are doing in our buildings.”

Lutz provided the board with current information regarding student and staff case numbers.

Three district staff members are currently isolating due to positive COVID-19 tests. Twenty staff members are currently quarantining due to being in close contact with a confirmed case. Another 13 staff members are in quarantine due to symptoms, but have not yet received a positive test.

This amounts to 36 out of roughly 900 staff members.

As for students, 10 are currently positive across the district -- eight are in the high school, two in the middle school. A total of 213 students across the district are in quarantine due to coming in contact with a positive case. Another 55 students are in quarantine due to symptoms, but have not yet received a positive test.

This amounts to 278 students out of around 5,000.

The board asked Lutz to compare Bemidji’s current learning model to peer schools across the state. Currently, there is still a wide mix of learning models in use across the state, ranging from schools having elementary students having fully in-person classes, to districts fully in distance learning.

“It does seem like on a daily basis the trend is moving more toward hybrid and distance learning across the state,” he said. “We have several plans in mind on how to proceed from here. We are concerned that the numbers across the county are getting higher and higher."

Board members had questions for Lutz as to the status of extracurricular activities if the learning model became more restrictive.

Lutz said this would depend on whether there was an outbreak within schools or a particular team, but that just voluntarily switching to distance learning due to county numbers would not immediately cancel activities. Lutz mentioned that he thought Gov. Walz might soon make an announcement about this, making the district’s input moot.

There was also discussion of surveillance testing for students, to help identify asymptomatic spread.

Board members had additional questions for Lutz to pose to the public health officials on their behalf and suggested holding a special school board meeting to discuss the public health meeting’s findings.

“People are tired, people are fatigued by all this; staff, students, families. But I’m hoping that folks understand how much of a tight rope we are walking as a district. Every single day, when parents ask, ‘Are you thinking about moving to a different model?’ Basically every day, that’s the topic of the day,” Board Chair John Gonzalez said. “It’s a really fine balancing act that we’re under as a district trying to balance caring about a really good education and caring about the wellbeing of our students, staff and the community members as a whole either way we go, it’s a tough decision for everyone.”

Also during the meeting the Board of Education:

  • Set a "Truth in Taxation" hearing for 6 p.m. on Monday, Dec. 21.

  • Heard a school spotlight on Gene Dillon Elementary for its Social Emotional Learning program.

  • Heard a referendum summary from Lutz and discussed the next steps, which will be identifying areas for budget cuts within the next few weeks.

  • Approved a resolution establishing combined polling places for multiple precincts and designating hours during which the polling places will remain open for voting for school district elections not held on the day of a statewide election.