As this crazy year, 2020, continues, I find that it is nothing like I have ever experienced in my career. In the past, I could use my previous experience in numerous areas to try to predict outcomes and results, but this year has shown me that my crystal ball no longer works! It appears that all of the previous guides and indicators no longer seem to work for me.

As I try to predict the school district’s budget, I am often off the mark. Our deficit projections from last year have more than doubled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. As we have made adjustments to our projections, we have found that, month after month, our forecasts must be modified because our costs have been greater than anticipated due to the need for supplies to deal with the pandemic and distance-learning needs. Never before has a school year been this challenging.

The pandemic also created obstacles in our operating levy referendum efforts. I knew we would have our work cut out for us, but we still held out hopes that the levy would pass. While disappointed that it didn’t pass, I do understand and accept the results of the vote. Unfortunately, the outcome means that the budget issues of ISD 31 remain unresolved.

The school board and district leaders will now begin the process of looking for ways to stabilize the budget through cuts to programs, staffing, as well as student services and activity budgets. The process will take much of our time over the next five or six months as we evaluate and determine ways to cut and save money for the district. In the meantime, we will continue to operate our schools as well as we can within the limitations and additional costs placed upon us by the pandemic.

By now, you may be aware that Bemidji Area Schools is beginning to move towards a change in learning models with a switch to distance learning for the middle and high schools. All elementary schools will continue to provide in-person learning for students for the next few weeks.

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I have been pleased that the strategies we have put in place are working to keep students and staff members safe, but I have been concerned about the ever-increasing numbers of COVID-19 in our community. While numbers are rising throughout the county, COVID-19 is not spreading in our schools. Schools are still a safe place for students and employees.

Unfortunately, because the spread of COVID-19 is taking place outside of our school buildings through gatherings in homes and other venues throughout the community, we are finding it more and more challenging to staff our schools effectively for in-person learning.

In the aftermath of Governor Walz’ recent executive order dialing back the state, I am hopeful that we, as a community, can work together to reduce our COVID cases over the next few weeks. If we can reduce these numbers, we may be able to bring our secondary students back to school and keep from moving elementary students to the distance learning model. Because of the huge impact a move to distance learning would make on families of elementary children, we will need to begin planning for such a move over the next few weeks. But, my hope is that we can keep elementary schools open after the holidays.

As we approach the holiday season, those of us at ISD 31 hope you and your families remain safe and healthy. Please continue to practice the guidelines issued by the Center for Disease Control and the Minnesota Department of Health. Please wear masks around others, practice social distancing when necessary, wash your hands often, and stay home if you do not feel well. If you gather with family and friends over Thanksgiving, please do so safely and with social distancing in place.

My hope is that we can continue to have students in our schools. We all need to work together toward the common goal of getting our county COVID numbers down and keeping our schools open.

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