BEMIDJI -- The Bemidji Area Schools board meeting adjourned suddenly on Monday, Aug. 16, due to interruptions from the 60-person crowd during a discussion of a possible mask requirement for the district.

Early in the meeting, District Human Resources Director Jordan Hickman relayed the Minnesota Department of Health’s adjusted recommendation for contact tracing with regards to COVID transmission.

While a close contact is still defined as coming in contact with an infected person for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period, a new parameter would exclude students needing to quarantine if the students who were three to six feet from the infected person were wearing well-fitted masks.

Hickman’s statement drew considerable groans from the public and set the mood for the rest of the meeting.

While other items were on the agenda, the resolution relating to health and safety, namely managing the COVID Delta variant within the district, was at the forefront of most of the spirited comments made by the public.

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Gabriel Schwinghammer requests that students not have to wear masks in the upcoming school year during the Bemidji Area Schools board meeting on Monday, Aug. 16, at the district’s Downtown Education Center. Schwinghammer said he has two younger brothers in the school district. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Gabriel Schwinghammer requests that students not have to wear masks in the upcoming school year during the Bemidji Area Schools board meeting on Monday, Aug. 16, at the district’s Downtown Education Center. Schwinghammer said he has two younger brothers in the school district. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

During public participation, several community members took turns talking about what the district should and shouldn’t do regarding masking, vaccinations and making decisions based on disputed statistics. In total, eight spoke against masking while two were for masks.

“Requiring masks is foolish and unwise,” Gabriel Schwinghammer said during his turn at the podium. “It may seem like a minor inconvenience, but for younger children, that’s not the case.”

Schwinghammer discussed having two younger brothers in the district and said masks prevent children from learning regarding enunciation and facial cues.

Other concerns that were brought up regarding mask requirements included their effectiveness, a parent’s and child’s choice and other issues that may stem from a mandate.

While the majority opinion was against mandated masking, Superintendent Tim Lutz doubled down on his priority of keeping the health and safety of students and employees front of mind.

“With no masks, I’d worry that many students will need to quarantine,” Lutz said. “I understand the recommendation isn’t popular, but I would recommend to start the beginning of the year…”

A wave of opposition was voiced in the room, but Lutz continued by sharing four options the district would consider regarding masking:

  • All students, staff and visitors who are not vaccinated must wear masks

  • All students, staff and visitors must wear masks regardless of vaccination status

  • Staff and students for grades K-5 must wear masks

  • All students, staff and visitors are recommended to wear masks

The board proposed waiting to vote for one to two weeks once they collect more data about the spread of the Delta variant.

Meeting attendees clap during the public participation period after a speaker requests that students not wear masks in the upcoming school year during the Bemidji Area Schools board meeting on Monday, Aug. 16, at the district’s Downtown Education Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)
Meeting attendees clap during the public participation period after a speaker requests that students not wear masks in the upcoming school year during the Bemidji Area Schools board meeting on Monday, Aug. 16, at the district’s Downtown Education Center. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

In the meantime, Lutz provided a brief referendum update letting the public know about recruitment efforts for a special committee.

“We’re moving into a very busy time with the referendum,” Lutz said. “We are asking people who are willing to support the district that they join us as a way to reach out to the community.”

The board is set to vote on another referendum on Tuesday, Nov. 2. If it passes, the district’s existing referendum authority of $180 per pupil would be replaced with a referendum authority of $460 per pupil, taxes for which would be payable in 2022 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise reduced or revoked.

During a July board meeting, the topic of holding the referendum vote this year was discussed at length. Because there is no general election, the district would have to pay for election expenses.

Though it’ll cost the district about $50,000 to go out for an operating referendum this year, several board members suggested a referendum held during a special election may be more successful because the referendum question won't be swept up in partisan politics. And because people going to vote on the ballot measure will likely be informed of the issue.

During Monday’s meeting, the location for absentee voting for school district elections not held on the day of a statewide election was set as the School District Office at 502 Minnesota Ave. NW.

Also during the meeting, the board unanimously passed a motion to designate a 16-acre parcel of land in Eckles Township as the Solway School Forest. Though used by the district since the 1950s, the site was never conveyed as the official school forest, so it is now official property of Solway Elementary School for continued use for outdoor classroom activities.

Hickman also spoke on the administration's recommendation to add two full-time social workers and five elementary teachers/specialists. Bemidji Area Schools received Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding this year that must be used, in part, to address “learning loss” due to the pandemic.

It would cost about $640,000 to add those positions, though partial funding through a local agency could offset any remaining cost. The district would consider tapping into art funding unless enrollment covers additional cost, at which point the art funding would simply be a safety net.

The board unanimously passed adding these positions for the 2021-2022 school year.

With all other agenda items resolved, the board was set to further discuss COVID mitigation measures within the district. Board members were able to ask Hickman questions, though those in attendance also took the opportunity to interject with their own thoughts and opinions.

In the midst of the interruptions, board member Carol Johnson made a motion for an early adjournment to end the meeting -- much to the public’s frustration.

“You can see how they’re going to vote already,” one member of the public said in reference to the mask mandate topic as the board adjourned.

The next school board meeting has not yet been scheduled.