BEMIDJI -- After more than a year of distance learning, limited activities and growing uncertainty of the future, Bemidji Area Schools students, faculty and staff, though masked, will be returning to school in person on Tuesday, Sept. 7.

The current mask mandate which requires masking regardless of vaccination status was passed 5-1 during the Aug. 25 special board meeting. Though this was met with mixed reactions from the public, Superintendent Tim Lutz commended the decision as a mitigation tactic against the COVID-19 virus.

With regards to last year, Lutz said that “staff members did a great job of mitigating (the COVID-19 situation) and masking was one of those strategies.”

The Minnesota Department of Health adjusted their recommendation for contact tracing so that students who are in close contact with an infected person don’t need to quarantine if they were wearing a well-fitted mask at the time.

Close contact is still defined as someone who is within three to six feet of an infected person for at least 15 minutes over a 24-hour period.

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The school board’s priority of keeping students in school ultimately led to the mandate that will be reevaluated by a COVID advisory committee consisting of various employees within the district. The 18-20 person committee includes teachers, principals, parents, students, local health experts and maintenance/facility managers.

Based on guidance from the Center for Disease Control, the committee would observe COVID transmission levels in Beltrami County based on four categories: low, moderate, substantial and high. Lutz shared that the county is currently at a high level of transmission with a 20% positivity rate, or one in five people who are tested for COVID are positive, during a discussion on Sept. 2.

The committee would also follow Sanford Health’s COVID transmission model which shows infection rates peaking toward the end of September with a possible decline in October.

If it remains, Beltrami County could move from the high category of spread to the substantial, then moderate. Once at the moderate level, Lutz said the committee would convene about potentially shifting from a mask mandate to a recommendation, though he said the county will likely stay at high or substantial spread for the next month.

In the meantime, Lutz is excited to welcome students back to the classrooms for a year that has been described as “the new normal.”

“Everybody will do what they did in past years: come to school prepared to learn (but) wearing masks,” Lutz said.

Referendum plans

The district’s upcoming referendum vote has not taken a back seat to the mask discussion. With a special election coming up Tuesday, Nov. 2, district voters will have a say in whether the district’s current referendum authority of $180 per pupil will be replaced with an authority of $460 per pupil.

This will be the district’s second attempt at a referendum vote after the first one failed in 2020 with 11,725 “no” votes and 7,851 “yes” votes. This subsequently led to the closure of Central Elementary after the 2020-2021 school year as a cost-saving measure.

Lutz detailed the need to make around $4 million in budget cuts this past school year and the need to make around $2.5 million more if this upcoming referendum doesn’t pass. Some further budget cuts may include cutting teacher positions, offering fewer elective classes and reducing the number of student activities among other options.

RELATED: Frustrated by 'no' vote, some area residents donate directly to Bemidji school district

“School districts can’t succeed by making cuts,” Lutz said. “A strong community is only as strong as its school system.”

Several public volunteers have signed up for a special committee that’s aiming to raise awareness of the Nov. 2 referendum vote and the district’s budget crisis. The committee consists of a “Get Out the Vote” team, marketing and fundraising committees, and volunteers to appear at speaker’s bureaus.

“We have quite a few more people (volunteering) this year than last year,” Lutz said. “This year, we’re not shut down, so more people are volunteering their time.”

Taxes for the upcoming referendum, if passed, would be payable in 2022 and applicable for 10 years unless otherwise reduced or revoked.

Enrollment by the numbers

As of April 29, near the end of the 2020-2021 school year, there were 2,086 students in grades K-5 in the district, of which 186 were distance learners. For grades 6-12, a total of 2,528 students attended the district with 399 learning from a distance.

The whole district combined served 4,614 students with 585 distance learners, about 13% of the student population by the end of the year.

As of Sept. 2, there were 2,117 students in grades K-5 enrolled for this coming year, an increase of 31 students from last year. There are 2,675 students in grades 6-12 enrolled, an increase of 147 from last year.

Lutz partly credited the increase in K-3 enrollment to the closing of Central Elementary, after which those students were redistributed to the other elementary schools. Horace May, JW Smith and Solway Elementary all saw increased enrollment from last year.

RELATED: Teachers, students say farewell to Central Elementary, Bemidji's oldest school

Along with increased student enrollment, the school board approved adding two full-time social workers and five elementary teachers/specialists during their Aug. 16 meeting. Adding these positions cost about $640,000, though the district received Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funding this year that must be used, in part, to address “learning loss” due to the pandemic.

Lutz emphasized the importance of addressing the mental health needs of students going into this year, a hope that brought up the idea of adding these positions, which are currently being filled.

“I hope to meet the needs of students for mental health support, and am hopeful and excited to address those needs,” Lutz said. “I trust we’ll be able to do that, and we’re better poised to do that in school.”

Other new staff includes Evan Amdahl, Northern Elementary and Lakeside Learning Center; Elizabeth Anderson, Paul Bunyan Center; Danielle Barnack, Bemidji Middle School; Marcie Gargano, Paul Bunyan Center; Emma Grund, Bemidji Middle School; Kyla Hannem, Bemidji Middle School; Mary Hegna, Bemidji High School; Justin Henry, Bemidji High School; Dora Inman, Bemidji High School; Shelley Johnson, Gene Dillon Elementary; Tyler Johnson, Bemidji High School; Paul Leclaire, Lakeside Learning Center; Jennifer Lindsay, Gene Dillon Elementary; Malcolm McCannell, Bemidji High School; Kristie O’Beirne, Bemidji High School; Kathryn Peterson, Paul Bunyan Center; Julie Pruett, Northern Elementary; Janel Samuelson, Bemidji Middle School; and Andrea Willard, Bemidji Middle School.

Looking ahead

On the cusp of the new school year, Lutz is looking forward to student life as it was before, just through a mask.

“I’m excited that while we’ll be wearing masks, we’re allowed to do things we didn’t last year,” Lutz said. “Having the show choir again this year in a normal way, though masked; having fall and winter sports that were cut short or didn’t happen last year.”

Lutz said that he hopes to close the learning gap that many students experienced being out of school this past year with distance learning and catching students up to where they should be academically and personally.

Lutz also thanked the school board for their leadership throughout the past year and credited them for making tough decisions that have allowed students to fully return to school.

“I’m grateful and thankful for (the board’s) leadership in this difficult situation,” Lutz said. “This has been the toughest time ever experienced for school boards throughout the state.”

In speaking on his main goal for this coming year, Lutz said, “to keep kids in school and serve students in having as much of a normal school year as possible; the new normal.”