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TIM LUTZ COLUMN: Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best

As you may know, Bemidji Area Schools had to cancel four days of school this past week. The decision to do so was not because of the community spread of COVID in our schools. On the contrary, our schools are still safe and healthy thanks to the many strategies we have had in place since the beginning of the pandemic.

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As yet another surge of COVID hits our region, it seems as if we are living in the movie "Groundhog’s Day."

Just when I begin to think that we have finally beaten the virus, another strain appears with new and more unique threats. While the Delta variant was more virulent, Omicron is more contagious.

Each unique strain has its specific characteristics requiring communities and institutions to adjust in new ways and to learn how to deal with health and safety measures from a different perspective. This is where Bemidji Area Schools is at right now.

The district continues to maintain the same layered approach in its pandemic mitigation protocols as it had since the beginning, but new guidance from the Center for Disease Control and Minnesota Department of Health has presented variations in the degree of our responsiveness.

One example of this is in the new quarantine guidance that has come out recently, reducing most quarantine time periods to five days.

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If there is a silver lining to the latest variant, other than the fact that it appears to be less virulent, it is that it also appears to be a short-lived wave in terms of its arc through a community. I am hopeful that this latest wave will be shorter than what previous variants have thrown at us and that it will decline after a few weeks.

As you may know, Bemidji Area Schools had to cancel four days of school this past week. The decision to do so was not because of the community spread of COVID in our schools.

On the contrary, our schools are still safe and healthy thanks to the many strategies we have had in place since the beginning of the pandemic. Rather, we have had to call this “reset” because so many employees — teachers, paraprofessionals, food service staff, custodians and other staff — have been unable to work. Some have had COVID, while others have struggled with the flu or a cold or some other illness. Others have children who have been sick at home and in need of care.

This situation is now all too common in Minnesota with schools needing to shut down for a “reset” or to move into Distance Learning. In many cases, however, the issue is the inability to staff schools safely. When too many teachers are out, and when we cannot find enough substitute teachers for those classrooms, we cannot safely operate a school.

When you add to the equation additional employees from food service, custodial, para-professional, and secretarial departments, we have a multiplier effect that further exacerbates the problem.

In Bemidji, the purpose of the shutdown last week was two-fold: first and foremost to prepare for a potential move to distance learning. If that move turned out to be necessary, our hope was to limit the move to distance learning to secondary schools only and to keep elementary schools and classes open.

By moving the secondary schools into distance learning, a number of additional support staff could be temporarily assigned to the elementary schools to help keep them open.

The second reason for the four-day shutdown of our schools was to give those employees who were unable to work the time they needed to recover and to return to work next week. Schools around the state are finding that a few days of “reset” can make all the difference in avoiding the move to distance learning.

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After these last four days, Bemidji Area Schools is now fully poised should the need arise to move into a temporary distance learning format in the future. But, we hope the need to do so will not arise again. We have prepared for the worst, but are hoping for the best.

Bemidji Area School District is blessed with an incredibly dedicated roster of professionals. Our goal is to keep them and all students healthy and safe while also providing the best education possible. In this work, and in completing our mission, we are thankful for the ongoing support of our community.

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

Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz
Bemidji Area Schools Superintendent Tim Lutz. (Pioneer file photo)
(Pioneer file photo)

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