A look back at 2020’s highs and lows for Bemidji area educational institutions

Here’s a look back at some of the highs and lows of 2020 for the universities, colleges, public schools, private schools and charter schools in and around the Bemidji community.

Class of 2020 graduate Abby Kieson tears up as she’s driven through Bemidji High School's graduation procession on Saturday, May 23. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)

BEMIDJI -- As 2020 comes to a close, it can be easy to forget the deluge of happenings that came along with this chaotic year. While it has been a year full of changes for most, extreme changes have been particularly apparent in the world of education.

Here’s a look back at some of the highs and lows of 2020 for the universities, colleges, public schools, private schools and charter schools in and around the Bemidji community.


  • 2020 started out like any other for Bemidji students. In early January, 17 Bemidji business leaders spoke to Bemidji High School students during a " CEO in the Classroom" event .

  • Fifth-grader Ivy Blumenshein took the top spot in the 35th annual Bemidji Middle School Spelltacular Spelling Bee, winning in the 16th round by spelling the word, “abundance.”

  • Bemidji Middle School robotics teams took their skills to state at the end of January.

Tanner Johnson, left, and Eric Bittmann measure their robot on Wednesday morning, Jan. 29, at Bemidji Middle School. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • The Pioneer featured the "Eagle Eye News," in February, a program at Gene Dillon Elementary which gives students a chance to explore the world of broadcasting.

  • Students at Bemidji State University formed a Black Student Union.

  • Several members of the Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education began work on developing a foundation which will contribute to the funding of Bemidji public schools on top of current taxpayer funding. The project is titled the Bemidji 31 Foundation Fund.

  • On Feb. 21, more than a hundred of the brainiest middle and high school students in the region came together to show off their smarts at the 67th Annual Northern Minnesota Science Fair held at Bemidji State University.

  • Madeline Larson walked away with the most prestigious award from the Bemidji Middle School Science Fair … again. In doing so, the Bemidji eighth-grader made local history by becoming the first student in the Science Fair’s existence of more than three decades to win the Bob Schultz Award in back-to-back years.


Madeline Larson, 14, shows the process of her project on the "Effects of Pressurizing a Hydrogen Fuel Cell" in their family shop after winning First Place Overall and First Place in Engineering at the Bemidji Middle School Science Fair held on Feb. 6. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • In March, everything changed.

  • Minnesota State colleges and universities announced they would suspend classes in an effort to limit the spread of the coronavirus, starting March 12. Gov. Tim Walz announced the first shut down of K-12 schools statewide starting March 18.

  • The staff soon got creative as students began learning from home -- meal distributions quickly got underway in Red Lake , where buses were used to take meals to students’ homes.

  • Some students were still in school -- elementary-aged children of emergency workers received child care at Bemidji Area Schools.

  • Students at Bemidji State were thrown for another loop not long after the shutdown when the swift decision was made to have all on-campus students move out of the residence halls. Students were required to be out of their dorms by March 23 unless they had extenuating circumstances.

032520.N.BP.BSUDORMS - LEAD.jpg
BSU freshman Jennifer Hornseth, left, and Helen Mlady were two of the many students loading up their belongings on Monday, March 23, outside of Oak Hall after students were told they had to be out of their dorms by the end of the day. (Annalise Braught / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • Families adjusted to a “new normal” of distance learning by the beginning of April. The Pioneer spoke with a superintendent, a principal, teachers, parents and students to learn their perspectives of the current situation.

  • From needing to leave their campus housing, to being prohibited from working off-campus, and not being able to go back to their home countries, many international students were left with unanswered questions. In mid-April, two international students at BSU shared their stories of fear and frustration.

  • On April 22, U.S. Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., spoke with area school administrators and Paul Bunyan Communications about the rollout of distance learning, technology concerns and rural broadband development -- the need for which became even more apparent with the onset of the pandemic.

  • On April 23, Gov. Tim Walz announced schools would remain closed through the remainder of the school year.

040820.N.BP.INTERNATIONAL Aizada Kurbankulova.jpg
Aizada Kurbankulova, a first-year BSU student from Kurdistan, went to stay in Chicago with family after moving off-campus due to COVID-19 during the spring semester. Submitted photo.


050620.N.BP.PARADE LEAD.jpg
Ruth and Bernice Johnson wave at Roary, Solway Elementary School’s mascot, during a parade held there on May 1. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • BSU’s Black Student Union held a peaceful demonstration on June 6 to address social injustices and remember George Floyd, who died at the hands of Minneapolis Police Officers at the end of May.

  • After years of discussion of whether to implement a high school program, Heartland Christian Academy announced in June that it was taking the plunge in the fall and adding four new grades. The new non-denominational private high school -- and only Christian high school in Bemidji -- is located on the Oak Hills Christian College campus.

  • The Pioneer visited the construction site for the new Hagg Sauer Hall at BSU on June 26. The hall is the first newly constructed building on campus since the American Indian Resource Center in 2001.


Zoe Christensen, president of BSU’s Black Student Union, gives a speech titled “A Message to the Silent” during a rally against racism on Saturday, June 6, in Paul Bunyan Park. (Jillian Gandsey / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • For BSU’s community of more than 60 international students, a mid-July announcement from the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement -- which stated international students must transfer or leave the country if their universities transition to online-only courses -- came as a complete shock. Ultimately, BSU officials were able to offer flexibility, allowing students to remain in Bemidji.

  • Xiaoming "Sean" Huang, a NorthStar visiting scholar from China studying in the department of Technology, Art and Design at BSU, shared his experience with the Pioneer in July.

  • In mid-July, colleges began to finalize plans to allow students to come back to school. Oak Hills Christian College announced its plan was to welcome its students back -- in-person -- with open arms, so long as those arms remain six feet apart, that is.

072520.N.BP.VISITINGPROF 1.jpg
Xiaoming "Sean" Huang is currently a NorthStar visiting scholar studying in the department of Technology, Art and Design at BSU. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • Local college students started to trickle back to town in August, and Aug. 24 marked the first day of classes at Bemidji colleges , including BSU, NTC and Oak Hills Christian College. A week in, five BSU freshmen shared their perspectives on the first few days of college in a pandemic.

  • By the end of the month, construction was wrapping up on the renovations made to the Red Lake Elementary School building. Over the past year, the school and the Early Childhood Center received a much-needed facelift, including a new roof, new entryway, expanded cafeteria and increased safety features.

082620.N.BP.BSUSTART 1.jpg
Abbie Newman and Jordan Hines study on Monday in the A. C. Clark Library on the first day of class at Bemidji State University for the fall semester. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • In September, the school year kicked off for K-12 students. It looked different for students around the area, some in person and some at home, with some having a mix of both. On Sept. 14, some of Bemidji’s youngest students walked back into brick and mortar school buildings for the first time since March.

  • As the school year began, some schools got creative with more COVID-friendly learning spaces. In early September, TrekNorth unveiled a large pergola built by staff and community members for use as an outdoor learning space.

  • In the last week of September, the Pioneer gave the community an inside look at the Bemidji Area Schools distance learning model and hybrid model .

090920.N.BP.TREKNORTH 2.jpg
School Board Member Lydia Pietruszewski and TrekNorth Director Erica Harmsen sit in the new outdoor classroom area. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • BSU celebrated Hispanic/Latinx Heritage Month in October with a series of historical lectures aimed at addressing contemporary events.

  • In the university’s first public performance since February, Stephen Carlson, professor of music at BSU, held in-person piano recitals on Oct. 9-10 at BSU's Thompson Recital Hall.

  • Four area students were selected to represent Congressional District 7 as a part of the Minnesota Youth Council . The group was unique as it’s rare to have four women selected, as well as four students all from the Bemidji area, due to the size of District 7.

  • Bemidji High School physical education teacher, Jackie Stoffel, was named an “Educator of Excellence ” for her unifying work.

  • Bemidji Area Schools discussed the data behind learning model shifts in an October school board meeting after parents questioned why the district hadn’t moved to a more restrictive model as cases rose in the area.


Three of the four Minnesota Youth Council members from District 7 pictured from left: Bridget Westrum, Jaden Henderson and Alya Nimis-Ibrahim. The three, along with Karen Guise of Red Lake, represent the youth voice of the 7th congressional district. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)


  • Election Day brought a couple of changes for area schools. The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education welcomed a new member with the election of BSU professor Gabriel Warren , but the critical Bemidji Area Schools operating referendum failed to pass when put to a vote.

  • Another important vote took place in early November: after the uncertainty of homecoming hung in the air, Bemidji High School students elected seniors Michael Dickinson and Hannah Alexander as 2020 homecoming king and queen on Nov. 5.

  • BSU welcomed its first newly constructed building since 2001 with the completion of the new Hagg-Sauer Hall, which was officially unveiled on Nov. 12.

  • The Bemidji Area Schools community took time to fondly remember Mark Fodness , a longtime BMS teacher and high school and collegiate tennis coach, who died from a heart attack on Nov. 25.

  • Bemidji Area Schools secondary students traded pencils and paper for computer screens, when they again began distance learning starting Nov. 30, following an increase in cases in the county.

  • The Pioneer visited the new Heartland Christian High School in late November, as its first semester of operation came to a close. School officials welcomed 13 students during the first few months and said things were going well.

Seniors Michael Dickinson and Hannah Alexander are Bemidji High School's 2020 homecoming king and queen. YouTube screenshot.


  • The Bemidji Area Schools Board of Education began to grapple with its looming budget crisis , which will set the tone for many decisions in 2021.

  • BSU and NTC finished up the fall semester, and will start welcoming more students back to campus housing in the spring.

  • While wrapping up the first half of a bizarre school year, BHS students found ways to give back and distance learning kindergarten teachers found ways to keep things fun .

122620.N.BP.LUMBERJACKLIVE upthrift
A Bemidji High School student showcases Up Thrift, a locally owned thrift store in the Paul Bunyan Mall. Screenshot from Lumberjack Live video.

There’s no telling what the next year will hold for the world of education, or the world in general, but if Bemidji educators can not only survive the eventfulness of 2020, but do so while leaving such a positive impact on the community, there is no doubt Bemidji students are in good hands.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
What To Read Next
Get Local