After a lengthy discussion during the recent board meeting on Aug. 17, the ISD 31 School Board passed a resolution that outlines the reopening of Bemidji Area Schools this fall. According to board members, the motion they passed was the most difficult decision they have ever had to make during a board meeting. The decision has also been challenging for ISD 31 administrators, including myself. After spending most of this unusual summer working with the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE), Sanford Health, and Beltrami County Public Health, we have decided to start school using the Base Model Plan of In-Person Learning for all K-5 Bemidji Area Elementary Schools and the Hybrid Model Plan for the middle and high schools (grades 6-12).

This decision was not made lightly, but was part of a comprehensive effort that took the better part of the summer. ISD 31 administrators and leaders have been working with health professionals to understand the nature of the coronavirus and to track the COVID-19 trend numbers in Beltrami County. We have also been working with many agencies that have assisted us in preparations for the safe opening of school this fall. We have spent the greater part of most days in meetings and in discussions as we have worked to develop protocols to keep students and ISD 31 employees safe as we open our schools.

We have examined school floor plans to create socially-distanced classrooms, designed traffic flows in hallways, coordinated uses of entrances and exits, and scheduled the use of lunchrooms, gymnasiums, music rooms and other learning spaces. We have developed plans for transporting students and created strategies for how sports and extra-curricular activities will work. We have listened to ideas, questions and concerns from teachers and other staff members, and used surveys of staff, parents, students, and community members to develop our strategies and plans. District leadership teams have worked countless hours to ensure that we have examined all of the nuances associated with safely opening our school buildings and offering a safe and healthy education to students of all ages.

I know many parents want to see their children in our classrooms, but others are concerned about how schools will keep their children healthy during this pandemic. Because it is important to allow for parent choice, the district is providing the opportunity for parents to enroll their children in an optional Distance Learning Plan. This option allows for parent choice, which is important for those who are not confident our schools will be safe and healthy places this year.

Our next steps will be for our building administrators to meet with teachers and other staff members from each building to finalize what our safe educational plans will look like and to communicate those plans with the parents and students in the district.

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An important part of the district’s plan to reopen schools safely is a four-day delay of the first day of school. Due to the many issues surrounding the pandemic, Bemidji Area Schools will not be opening on Sept. 8 as originally planned. In order to prepare even better for the safe start of the school year, we have pushed back the start of the first day of school to Monday, Sept. 14.

I never expected to see the day when I would need to prepare a district for a pandemic. The crises I have prepared myself for are school safety and operating referenda. Who would have thought that we would be dealing with all of these serious issues at the same time? I have appreciated the opportunity to hold virtual conversations with parents and district staff about the operating referendum. During these conversations, I have also been able to answer numerous questions about how our schools will open this fall.

During these conversations, I have appreciated the support from parents and staff members regarding our responses to the pandemic, as well our work on the operating levy. Since the pandemic has made our budget situation much worse than expected, the need to work together to support our budget is greater than ever. We are dealing with two crises at the moment: the pandemic and a budget crisis. I am grateful for the support of the community and the ISD 31 team on both issues. Together, and with such support, we will get through these difficult times.

Tim Lutz is superintendent of Bemidji Area Schools. He can be reached via email at tim_lutz@isd31.net.