BEMIDJI -- Due to a rising number of staff members out due to quarantine at the secondary level and the desire to exercise additional caution, Bemidji Area Schools will shift to distance at the middle and high school levels following Thanksgiving weekend.

Secondary students will have their final day of hybrid classes on Friday, with no classes in session during the week of Thanksgiving, to allow teachers time to prepare for the transition. Distance learning for all middle and high school students will begin Monday, Nov. 30.

Elementary students will remain with in-person learning, however, a plan is in place for elementary students to shift to distance learning beginning Jan. 4 -- the end of the district’s winter break -- depending on the current Beltrami County case numbers.

“There will be no model change in elementary schools at this time,” the district announced in a press release Wednesday evening. “Since the number of elementary students in the county who are contracting COVID-19 is extremely low and elementary schools are still very safe places to learn and work, we will continue allowing elementary students to attend school in person.”

A final determination regarding the instructional model for preschool and elementary students when school resumes on Jan. 4, 2021, will be made and communicated to all staff, families and students no later than Wednesday, Dec. 30.

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The ‘why’ behind the shift

Superintendent Tim Lutz told the Pioneer the reason behind this transition is important for students and families to understand -- as it is not happening due to any evidence of community spread within schools, he explained.

“The reason we are making these changes is that we are finding it more and more challenging to staff our buildings, at least at the secondary level at this point in time. Along with that, we want to be preemptive and be ahead of any particular issues that might occur as our numbers continue to rise in the county and as the weather gets colder and the holiday season approaches,” Lutz said.

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

To answer why only the secondary students are shifting now, Lutz said, “We’re finding that there are so few cases amongst our demographics at the elementary age level that we believe we can continue to stay in school.”

“We’re finding it a bit more challenging at the secondary level, because those students who are older and can drive and get around more, seem to be sometimes catching COVID-19 outside of school, more so than the younger kids,” he added.

He also mentioned that since younger students will likely need child care, this additional waiting period will allow families time to make arrangements, if needed.

Lutz is hoping this shift will also resolve some staffing issues, allowing some more teachers to work remotely, and free up much-needed substitute teachers who may have been working at the secondary level, to go to the elementary level -- or vice versa.

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, which may not seem like a large percentage, Lutz said, but can really throw a wrench in things if those staff members are concentrated in one or two buildings.

Elementary outlook

“We’re trying to plan for the worst and hope for the best,” Lutz said. “We’re trying to stay ahead of things, even at the elementary level and plan for a change, but toward the end of the month of December we are going to look at the numbers very carefully -- the number of positive cases that might be affecting students at the age level, and if those numbers are really, really low, we would like the reserve the decision-making process and the right to still bring back in, right after the new year. We will make a final determination no later than Dec. 30.”

Some might question why elementary students would transition directly from in-person learning to distance learning, bypassing the middle hybrid model. Lutz said this is due to the difficulty of maintaining a hybrid model with younger students.

“The hybrid model is a very, very difficult and challenging model to implement, for anyone, but especially at the elementary level. We have been finding it to be extremely challenging at the secondary level. Older students can manage a different schedule every week, but it’s just a real nightmare, a real challenge for us to implement. We figured that would be the case early on, but now that we’ve been doing it for a while at the secondary (level) we know it would be very difficult at the elementary level, so we wanted to skip right over,” he said.

Lutz added that students at the elementary level who have been distance learning by choice since the beginning of the year -- which there are now around 1,000 of district-wide -- will likely remain in their distance learning teams if the switch is made, since students will be at slightly different spots curriculum-wise.

The ever-increasing number of students who have chosen distance learning as an option has also played a role in the district’s decision to make a switch.

“That’s been a challenge as well for the district,” he said. “We anticipate that those numbers of people moving into full time (distance learning) will now stop.”

Going forward

Lutz is confident students and staff are well prepared to make this transition. Access to technology was a large issue for many families during the initial switch to distance learning this past spring, but Lutz said things should be better this time around. A shipment of 2,000 laptops, which were purchased with CARE funding, had been on back-order since the spring but have finally arrived to be distributed throughout the district.

“We encourage families to reach out to us if you don’t have broadband access or any kind of internet service, and we will try to provide them with hotspots, or what they need to make distance learning work,” he said.

Families are also being asked to continue reporting positive student cases of COVID-19 to the district, regardless of whether the student has been in school, as these numbers will factor into future decision-making.

“This information will be part of that critical data point, in determining whether or not we can come back sooner rather than later, either to hybrid or the in-person learning model,” he said. “Please, let’s not only work together to keep our numbers down in the county, but make sure they inform our schools when there is a case in their families.”

How long will this learning model last? Like many 2020 decisions, it is not yet clear. Lutz said the current status will be reevaluated around Martin Luther King Jr. Day, as that will be about two weeks after the winter holidays. However, he said, transitioning out of a more restrictive learning model is more difficult than going into one, as schools will need to procure the OK from state health officials.

“We will have to get permission to come back, but we hope that we can do that with the information that we’re tracking,” he said. “I hope we can come back sooner rather than later, but we might find out, especially if our numbers in Bemidji continue to go up, that we will have to wait until temperatures improve maybe, and we can do more outside.”

Transition details

After Thanksgiving break, on Monday, Nov. 30, secondary students will begin the distance learning model and start learning virtually. Once students are in the distance learning model, the school week will return to five days of learning, according to an announcement from Bemidji Area Schools. Wednesdays -- which were distance learning days beforehand -- will resume being an instructional day for students.

The middle and high schools will develop a plan to distribute textbooks and materials to each student. Each school will contact families with details about picking up these materials. We will begin making plans to transition elementary schools to a distance learning model beginning on Monday, Jan. 4, 2021. This will mean that, between Monday, Nov. 30 and Friday, Dec. 18, all elementary students will continue in-person learning at all elementary schools. Beginning on Monday, Dec. 21 through Wednesday, Dec. 23, teachers will begin working to transition into the distance learning model. No students should report to school on these days.

Area schools

Other schools in the area have also announced learning model changes.

  • Blackduck

    • Blackduck Public Schools announced this week that the district will switch to distance learning for both the elementary and secondary students. High school students began distance learning on Nov. 17 and elementary school students will begin on Nov. 23. “Our hope is to resume in person classes on Dec. 8 for both the Elementary and the High School (Hybrid),” read a Facebook post on the Blackduck Public Schools page on Nov. 16.

  • Bagley

    • The Bagley School District announced plans to continue distance learning through at least Dec. 11 in a Nov. 19 letter to parents, with plans to move into a hybrid model when allowed.

  • Red Lake

    • Red Lake Public Schools will remain in distance learning until the end of the second quarter -- which is usually around the first week of January -- according to a Facebook post from the Red Lake School Board Chairman Chris Jourdain.