BEMIDJI -- Nearly three weeks after Bemidji Area Schools’ middle and high school students returned to a fully in-person model, things are going well.
Students seem excited to be back in brick and mortar buildings and motivated to wrap up the final seven weeks of the school year.
Superintendent Tim Lutz said COVID-19 case numbers within the district have trickled off, even as case numbers have popped up a bit in the state and county.
“Even though our numbers are climbing in the state and the county, we're not seeing that rise yet in our district. So, I'm really happy about that. Numbers are really low,” Lutz said. Despite this, he reminded the public, “We're still in COVID, we still have to do things differently.”
Graduation and other end-of-year festivities on the horizon
As the weather begins to warm up, many schools are beginning to tentatively plan commencement ceremonies, though, after last year, officials know how tenuous this can be.
“Last year, we were making plans, and we were kind of ahead of the state, in the sense that we would make plans, not knowing what the guidance would be, and then guidance would come out, and we would have to make changes,” Lutz said. “We're trying to be really careful about not getting too far ahead of ourselves.”
No definitive decisions regarding commencement have been made yet, Lutz said.
However, barring some major changes to state guidance relaxing gathering restrictions in the next few weeks, he said Bemidji High School commencement would likely look similar to last year.
In 2020, Lumberjacks were honored with a graduation procession that began at the Sanford Center, circled through town, and ended with them receiving their diplomas drive-thru style in the parking lot of Bemidji High School. This commencement ceremony received a lot of positive community feedback, officials said.
This year, with added time to prepare and more relaxed restrictions, Lutz said the district hoped to offer more opportunities for students to stop, get out, and snap a few photos, adding that last year, students were not permitted to exit their vehicles.
This potential plan may come as a surprise to some, as Bemidji State University has announced tentative plans for in-person graduation, as have some other area colleges, but Lutz said due to the different demographics at the high school this is likely the best choice.
BSU, for example, is splitting its commencement ceremony into three separate events. Lutz said this is what Sanford Center officials said BHS would need to do as well, to hold a similar indoor event. Lutz said this could prevent entire families from coming along to celebrate graduates, or potentially split graduates from having ceremonies with their best friends.
“We're finding that it would be almost impossible or very challenging to do something that would be a traditional graduation,” he said. “A kind of a procession allows people to be together in the sense that everyone's in the parade and the procession, instead of having to do two or three sessions somewhere, and it gives people a chance to have a front seat view.”
Lutz said he also recently met with the high school administrative team regarding other staple end-of-year ceremonies.
There are several honors banquets usually held in the spring, like the American Indian Seniors Honors Banquet. Lutz said right now there are plans to hold these events this year, just likely without the serving of a meal, so attendees can be masked throughout the event.
“We're hoping to still do some of the things that we normally would do, ceremonies and important rites of passage that students get to do when they come to this stage in the school year. But we just can't have the banquet,” he said.
Dropping distance learning
On Monday, April 5, some middle and high school students had what was their first day of any form of in-person schooling in over a year.
At the beginning of the fourth quarter, students in full-time distance learning could elect to come back in person. Many did so, with 111 returning in-person at the Bemidji Middle School.
In the middle school, there still are about 155 students fully in distance learning, Lutz said but mentioned that number may drop as families have a week to choose whether or not to send them back for the final quarter in-person.
As of April 5, there are still 249 Bemidji High School students under the full-time distance learning model. There are 1,219 students at the high school back in full-time in-person learning
According to school officials, students who are choosing to come back are finishing out the year strong.
“I'm hearing students are more engaged, more motivated because now they're back. This is something that we noticed a couple of weeks ago when students were coming back more and more,” Lutz said. “They’re excited, more engaged, more connected, because they're here, with their peers and with their teachers every day. It’s going well.”
Still no community spread
COVID-19 case numbers are looking hopeful as well.
As of Friday, April 2, there are no positive staff members within the district, Lutz said, with only one staff member currently quarantining due to a close contact situation
Lutz added that as of Friday, there are four students throughout the district that are currently COVID-19 positive.
“That's an awfully big improvement from even a few weeks ago,” he said. “We still don't have any community spread, even though our numbers are going up in the county and in the state, the mitigating factors that we've had in place all year still do work -- the masking in particular -- and then trying to social distance as much as possible during the day, hand washing all that still is working. I think that's why we can continue to do this.”
Little guidance has been announced at the state or federal levels regarding the vaccination of students, but as the state has opened up vaccination for Minnesotans ages 16 and old, some high school students may elect to get their shots.
Lutz said the district doesn’t have, nor can it collect, this information from students regarding whether or not they have been vaccinated for COVID-19 due to privacy concerns.
“We are definitely encouraging families and students to get the vaccines. We just can't keep track unless people share that information with us,” Lutz said. “If they come to our clinic, we can kind of keep track of that. But we can't just say to somebody, ‘Tell us if you've had your vaccine,’ because that would be a violation of health privacy rules.”
He said the high school is working on setting up some vaccine clinics at the high school for students who would like to be vaccinated.
Currently, the only vaccine that has been authorized for use on youth is the Pfizer vaccine, which can be given to people ages 16 and up. Both the Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines are only to be administered to people ages 18 and older.
According to district officials, more than 95% of the staff who indicated their desire to receive a vaccine to the district have been fully vaccinated.