BEMIDJI-- Bemidji State University is putting a holiday bow on its fall semester as students wrap up their finals at the end of this week.

On Tuesday, BSU and NTC President Hensrud gave holiday remarks on how the atypical semester went and looked forward to spring.

She began on a cheery note dressed in Christmas attire, running through some regular COVID-19 congratulations, thanking faculty and staff for their flexibility and willingness to adapt to whatever is thrown at them. She also read a BSU version of the poem “The Night Before Christmas,” with lines such as “It was two weeks before Christmas and all throughout town, the home of the Beavers, there were few students around.”

Hensrud then reflected on the good things that have happened throughout the year, before moving on to address community concerns.

She spoke of the worries many faculty had about whether the current class delivery methods, many of which will continue into the spring semester, will negatively affect student’s test scores and ability to remain in school.

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“That’s something we seriously are concerned about,” she said. “Some students just don’t thrive in more of an online environment. We’re really working hard with our advisers and providing support to our students so they’re able to get the support that they need in order to continue their education. I know there are some who will find it difficult and will have to drop out for a period of time, but our goal is to continue to engage them so they will come back to us when they’re more comfortable with the learning environment.”

She also spoke about the challenge of recruiting and retaining students during the uncertain time.

“It’s something we’re continuing to work on as we look at strategies for not only recruiting more students but retraining the students that we do have,” Hensrud said. “As you can imagine, students that graduated from high school this past spring semester in 2020, they had a very different experience at the end of their high school term, and some of them are pausing a bit and waiting for when they might be able to come back to campus at a full-time status. We continue to work on enrollment strategies.”

On a Thursday conference call, Minnesota State System Chancellor Devinder Malhotra also addressed BSU’s successes and struggles during the unusual semester, and expressed gratitude and hope going forward.

By the numbers

Here’s a look at BSU’s fall enrollment, students and responses to COVID-19 through numbers:

  • 321 positive COVID-19 cases have been associated with BSU since the beginning of the pandemic. Hensrud said 34 of these were faculty and staff and 287 were students. As of Dec. 18, only five of those cases are active.

  • BSU and NTC held three COVID-19 saliva testing events this semester. During these events, 736 tests were conducted. “Positivity rates were very low compared to state averages,” Malhotra said, “which demonstrates Bemidji State and Northwest Technical College have made tremendous progress turning around a mid-semester COVID surge and is doing its part to protect the community.”

  • Seven out of every eight classes at BSU and NTC used alternative delivery methods -- meaning online or hybrid, Hensrud said.

  • 441 students lived in BSU residence halls in single rooms.

  • BSU enrollment dropped by 7% this fall, Hensrud said. According to Malhotra, before the pandemic enrollment was expected to drop around 2.5%. He said the average drop in enrollment throughout the Minnesota State system was around 5%, but that many schools in the northwest greater Minnesota region, including BSU and NTC, were all seeing larger decreases in enrollment than state averages, which he attributed to the region’s socioeconomic makeup.

  • 2,000 students had some sort of contact with the BSU campus throughout the semester, Hensrud said, meaning they lived on campus, had an on-campus job or attended at least one in-person class.

Plans for spring

During the Dec. 15 event Hensrud also addressed the elephant in the room -- when will things go back to "normal" ? She said many of these decisions rest on vaccine availability.

“We do know that the vaccines are arriving, I know they arrived here in Bemidji, and they’re going to our healthcare providers. It’s going to be some time before we’re able to get them to our students and our faculty and staff. So that’s going to impact whether we’re going to be able to have a lot of face to face instruction,” Hensrud said of the spring semester.

“As (public health) plans firm up and we move up the priority list then we will engage with our campuses,” Malhotra said, echoing that there were not yet any set-in-stone plans for vaccine distribution from the Minnesota State system.

Hensrud said the spring semester will look much like the fall, at least in the beginning.

“We’re planning for it to be similar to the start of what we had in the fall semester,” she said. “We can have face to face instruction, but we have to maintain the six feet of physical distance and wearing face masks, so that limits where you can hold classes, simply because you have less capacity in a classroom space than you did previously.”

“We want to open the spring semester with an abundance of caution,” Malhotra said.

Current restrictions on instruction delivery methods will remain in place until Feb. 1.

Students will begin to be welcomed back into residence halls with the spring semester, although Malhotra said universities will “ask the students to lay low for the first few weeks.”

The status of spring commencement, which was held virtually for the class of 2020 back in May, is once again under question.

“Commencement again is very much dependent on where the virus stands when it comes to May,” Hensrud told listeners on Tuesday. “We will have a commencement. What it looks like exactly is yet to be determined.”

She said potentially holding multiple smaller graduation ceremonies, broken down by the different colleges or departments might be a solution.

In talking about goals for the distant future, Hensrud mentioned that she hopes to increase engagement with Bemidji’s Native American community and expand programming to attract more students and stabilize enrollment.