BEMIDJI -- Bemidji Area Schools secondary students will soon be back in physical classrooms -- at least part of the time.

On Tuesday, Jan. 12, the Northwest Minnesota Regional COVID Support Team gave a green light -- approving a request from Bemidji Area Schools -- to move Bemidji High School and Bemidji Middle School students back to the hybrid learning model.

High school students will resume a hybrid schedule starting Feb. 4 and middle school will resume Feb. 1.

According to Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz, the support team believes Bemidji Area Schools have a solid plan to return secondary students to in-person learning. But recommended they return to the hybrid model as they were before the stint of distance learning, which began Nov. 30. Secondary students have not had class entirely in person at any point so far this school year.

"The recommendation is to return to what we did well before and to go in stages,” Lutz said of the meeting with the support team. “At this point in time, we have so few cases of quarantining staff or students. With 5,000 or so students, to have just a handful (in quarantine) is remarkable.”

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Recently, as required by Gov. Tim Walz, Bemidji Area Schools has begun offering tests every two weeks to staff members who come in contact with students every two weeks. Lutz said on the first go-round, 94 staff members were tested, and that there were “no surprises,” he said, meaning no asymptomatic positives. “It went well, no issues, no concerns and no surprises.”

The choice to return after January was made to coincide with the end of the school term, hopefully making for a smoother transition, he said.

Officials noted in a release sent Jan. 6. that middle school and high school schedules will not be the same since each school has “substantially different needs as each school transitions back to the hybrid model,” including the need for high school students to complete finals and return textbooks.

Bemidji High School will extend its second term by one week, which district staff said allows for extra time to conclude instruction, provide intervention, and administer grades and final assessments.

The third term will start on Feb. 1, with the plan for students to attend virtually for the first two days while also picking up materials for their third term classes. The first day of hybrid learning will be Thursday, Feb. 4, for Group B Week students at the high school.

At the Bemidji Middle School, the last day of the second term will be Wednesday, Jan. 27. There will be no online or in-person classes for students at BMS on Jan. 28 and 29, to give teachers time to prepare for a return to hybrid learning on Feb. 1.

The hybrid model will begin at BMS with the start of the third term on Monday, Feb. 1 with Group B Week students attending in person at the middle school.

When to expect changes

Lutz is optimistic, but realistic, and changes will continue to be made in stages.

“If it goes well again -- which we anticipate it will -- and if our numbers continue to go down in the county, then we can perhaps meet again with the COVID support team and get the green light to bring our secondary students back in in-person someday before the end of the school year,” Lutz said.

When will the next change come? While it’s impossible to know for sure, Lutz indicated he thinks hybrid will be the learning model for a good while. He said at some point the district can try to ask the Minnesota Department of Education for permission to move into a fully in-person learning model for secondary students, but that right now that request would almost certainly be denied.

Lutz said he also wanted to both praise community members for their mitigation efforts so far, and plea with the community to continue them, so students can come back to school sooner.

“It seemed that (the support team) had a consensus and was unanimous in wanting to see students come back,” he added. “The COVID team does want us to continue to be very cautious they are aware that it is easy to become complacent.”