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Bemidji State University, Northwest Technical College & COVID: Fall 2020

Bemidji State University and Northwest Technical College begin classes Monday, August 24th.   This will be the first time both campuses will have students in attendance since this past March when in an effort to flatten the COVID-19 curve, students simply did not return after spring break.  Colleges and universities across the country are grappling with the safest ways to provide quality educational experiences during the pandemic.  Randy Westhoff is the BSU Associate Vice President for Academic Affairs.  Travis Greene is the BSU Associate Vice President for Student Life and Success. They spoke on the morning show about how the school year is going to unfold and what has gone into preparing.

we took the Governor's orders very seriously. Anything that can be done remotely should be. We can't have classes of over twenty five students… we moved most of our courses, roughly 85 to 90 percent online, mostly synchronous. So they're going to meet at the time they're scheduled. We do have some things that just couldn't be done online music lessons, ensembles, some of the science labs just have to be face to face and a few other activities. – Randy Westhoff, BSU Associate VP Academic Affairs

We've been planning since early March trying to figure out different scenarios… while we've had a number of months to plan for this, plans have changed not only on a weekly basis, but sometimes on a daily basis, depending on how this virus spreads… In June, we were sending messages to our students that we were looking forward to a more robust on campus residential experience, housing up to nine hundred students, but still mitigating the risk of covid-19 through social and physical distancing, placing once student per dorm room, etc…Since that time, we've learned more about the virus.
We've learned about our county's ability to handle the spread… we made the difficult decision a couple of weeks ago to limit how many students live in the residence halls. And we went down to five hundred. And that was based on our capacity. We're working around the clock to figure out ways to bring them back safely. We just want them to come back when we've had some time to adjust and see how the virus adapts or doesn't. And if we are able to bring them back mid semester, we're not going to wait till the spring term just because that's what we communicated. – Travis Greene, BSU Associate Vice President Student Life and Success

Last spring, online courses became the only teaching medium for faculty system-wide.  For some professors, teaching online was already in their wheelhouse, but for many others, it was a new venture. Westhoff, a math professor in addition to his Associate VP duties was one of those faculty members who found the move from in-person to on-line teaching somewhat of a challenge.  Looking toward this fall, he sees new opportunities in the online option.

…it was a really steep learning curve.  I think faculty have really learned a lot. I think we all realize we can do some things online that maybe we didn't even know we could before that…now we have time to plan for it…I think faculty have just learned a lot about themselves and how they teach and how their students are learning through this process as well. – Randy Westhoff, BSU Associate VP Academic Affairs

As with any great challenge, great growth is a side effect.  BSU and NTC faculty and students are finding that thinking differently about how to communicate virtually has ironically increased constructive communication in unforeseen ways.

President Hensrud has been a great leader through this.  Her calm and steady leadership throughout both campuses, both Bemidji State and Northwest Tech, has been not only inspiring, but also reassuring…One thing that we've learned is the need for clear and open and transparent communication…I think that’s something most colleges and universities strive towards, but oftentimes struggle. But… we've started having weekly campus forums where we will have meetings every week and faculty and staff are able to log in and ask questions, either anonymously or have their name attributed…We've had more participation through our online Zoom forums than we have had through our once a semester, twice a semester scheduled, campus forums in-person… because of the huge success that we've had communicating with our employees, with staff and faculty, we've also brought that to the student experience. And we've had three student forums at Bemidji State and we've had three at NTC. So these are the takeaways that I don't think we would have ever experienced had we not gone through a global pandemic that required us to think creatively about how to engage and connect and communicate with our community.- Travis Greene, Associate VP Student Life and Success

Click on the arrow above for the full interview.  Find out how students will physically distance while moving into residence halls, how the 500 students who will live on campus were determined, what safety measures are in place and much more.

Thanks to everyone in the educational world navigating this unprecedented time!  

Katie Carter started at Northern Community Radio in 2008 as Managing Editor of the station's grant-funded, online news experiment Northern Community Internet. She returned for a second stint in 2016-23. She produced Area Voices showcasing the arts, culture, and history stories of northern Minnesota.