BEMIDJI -- Some positive news to share on the COVID-19 front -- for the first time in a year, Bemidji’s middle and high school students will be headed back to in-person classes, full time.
Bemidji High School and Bemidji Middle School will begin on Thursday, March 25. All groups of students will return the same day as the governor is no longer requiring a staggered start.
Elementary students have been in a fully in-person learning model since the start of this school year. Secondary students began the year under a hybrid model, shifted back to full distance learning from November to January, and are now on their way to full in-person classes by the end of March.
However, although more students will be back in classrooms, things still won’t be “back to normal.” Along with Gov. Tim Walz’s recent guidance to bring students back to in-person learning by March 8, came a list of new restrictions.
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz said the next few weeks will be used to prepare to comply with new guidance and restrictions from Gov. Walz. Tuesday, March 23 and Wednesday, March 24 will be used as planning days for educators in accordance with state guidelines.
“I know that students and parents are anxious to get students back to school," Lutz said. "What we do has worked and continues to work. We are excited to bring our students back to the middle and high school within a few weeks."
New state guidelines
The new guidelines are as follows:
Schools are to recommend students and families get tested for COVID-19 every two weeks. Lutz said this guideline was initially confusing because districts did not know if this was their responsibility to facilitate. He clarified this is just a recommendation for families and that they are encouraged to use the free at-home test kits or one of the state’s community testing sites.
Schools are now required to document lunchroom seating to help with contact tracing if needed, Lutz said. The state is also recommending that schools keep the same students grouped together during lunchtime while maintaining six feet of distance between students.
Bussing capacity was increased. Lutz said this is good because it offers families more transportation options, but that if a student chooses to ride the bus, it means the student will likely come in contact with more people per day. This means the student is more likely to need to quarantine.
For elementary schools, the state is recommending students and staff keep at least three feet of physical distance. Students should remain in small groups that do not mix with other groups throughout the day.
For middle and high school students, there is a requirement of six feet of distance between students whenever possible. When it isn’t possible, there is a stricter requirement of three feet that must be followed. Lutz said this is most difficult to implement in some of the larger classes, once both hybrid groups of students are back in one learning space.
Lutz said the next couple of weeks will be busy making sure the minimum of three feet of space can be ensured in all classrooms.
“If we have 28 kids in a classroom in 10th-grade geometry instead of 14, because it’s no longer hybrid, will we be able to maintain that three feet?" Lutz wondered. "Most of our classrooms we think we can do that. But there are still quite a few of the hundreds of classes that the high school and the middle school offer that will be too full. We’re trying to figure out how we’re going to restructure and manage that. That literally is going to take days of measuring, analyzing class sizes, predicting how many students are going to be coming back, removing equipment, figuring out other room locations for some of the larger classes. That is going to take us a few weeks to do.”
Schools that were already under either in-person or hybrid models are required to adopt these new measures as well.
Lutz said "Distance Learning Wednesdays" will remain in place, as the school district will still provide a distance-learning option.
“We still have a couple hundred students who are out there (full) distance learning, as they begin to change and want to come back, our classes are going to keep getting bigger and bigger, so we’ll have to keep adjusting,” he said.
Why March 25?
Lutz acknowledges some families will be disappointed that students will not return sooner than March 25, but he said the date was chosen carefully.
“Once we are back in the hybrid model, it is much harder to come back again," Lutz said. "We want to make sure we can sustain our in-person model once we get there."
He also mentioned that the date is sort of a "sweet spot" in terms of teacher vaccination efficacy.
A large number of the district’s teachers who elected to receive a vaccine were vaccinated at an event in mid-February. This group will receive their second doses in early March. Vaccines require another two weeks after the second dose to be fully effective, Lutz said.
The Center for Disease Control guidance is that if teachers are in close contact with students who are COVID-19 positive they will have to quarantine unless it has been two weeks since they have received their vaccinations, Lutz said.
“We don’t want to start back up and find out we have to quarantine a whole bunch of our teachers,” he explained, mentioning that short staffing due to quarantining staff members was an issue earlier in the fall.
On the vaccine front, as of the last school board meeting on Feb. 22, the district had good news to report. Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman spoke about staff vaccinations, reporting that a majority of staff members who requested to be vaccinated have been.
“We have been working diligently with three different agencies to provide vaccines to our employees,” he said.
Hickman said 480 staff members indicated they were interested in receiving a vaccination, of those, only 30 employees and six substitutes still need a vaccine.
“Greater than half of our staff have received a vaccination,” Hickman said. “I’m very happy to say that we’re close to giving everyone an opportunity to have their vaccination if they wanted one.
Lutz said no state guidance has yet been released to districts regarding student vaccines, but he said he expected that wouldn’t happen until school was out for the summer.