Students going back to class this fall will bring something with them that before this year they likely never thought they would carry: face masks.

But as students of higher learning in the region head to campus with face coverings, some educators and administrators say they look at these times for the opportunities they present, and not just the challenges.

Prairie Business reached out to three institutions of higher learning, one each in North Dakota, South Dakota and western Minnesota to see what programs and trends they are following or creating this year due to the pandemic.

Besides implementing mandatory mask policies, each of the universities are trying new things to serve their students and communities during these times.

Dickinson State University

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The pandemic has certainly created some challenges, but Dickinson State University, located in Dickinson, N.D., is looking at the brighter side of opportunity.

About 10% of the courses traditionally offered at DSU have been available online. During the fall semester, however, all of the school’s courses will be available online in what President Stephen Easton calls a “hybrid format,” meaning education will be both in-class and on the web.

“This will be our first semester of widespread teaching in this hybrid mode,” he said. “We've done a little of that In the past where we've taught students face-to-face and in remote locations, but this will be our first semester of doing it on a widespread basis. … We'll be learning how to do it effectively and getting some experience with it in the fall, and then, at least it is my hope, that we might be able to pivot this crisis into an opportunity by as early as spring and provide additional opportunities for students.”

One advantage: a student may start by taking a class on campus, but if she or he becomes ill the student can continue the course online.

“We anticipate we will have students at various points in the semester who will test positive (for COVID-19) and, with this, we then will have a plan for them to continue their learning,” Easton said. “Most of them will be asymptomatic or very mildly symptomatic, and so we need to have a way for them to continue their education during that 10 days to two weeks when they might be in isolation. … We're sort of forced into that, but we've been working on the opportunities that this presents.”

The pandemic is taxing for many businesses and institutions, higher ed included, he said, but it does provide means to be forward thinking and try new approaches. “Opportunity,” Easton said, is the key word in the university’s efforts to assist and serve during the pandemic.

Among those efforts the university also has reached out to high schools in Stark County about their students taking online classes from DSU “to get a little jumpstart on their college education,” he said. “Since we're going to be delivering these classes in that mode, in addition to face-to-face, I think that presents an exciting opportunity for accessibility of our programs. We're excited about that.”

This effort is still in the planning stages, but Easton said he hopes to promote the opportunity for high schoolers more this fall and, hopefully, have a good showing of interested students come spring.

“That is one that is very much on the table,” he said, noting the university would also like to help residents who may have completed some college courses but never earned a degree.

“I think this hybrid method presents a real opportunity for us to provide a way to complete those grades and pursue a college education for people that cannot necessarily get to our campus every day,” he said. “We're hoping to explore those opportunities.

“Right now, we're focused on converting to that method of teaching, but we think it's an opportunity for us to increase our accessibility. That's a big part of our mission: to be accessible, primarily in western North Dakota but even beyond. We think there are some things that we will be able to do that we probably would not be ready to do were it not for this crisis.

“We're trying to look at it as a way to pivot out of crisis mode and into opportunity mode.”

University of Minnesota Crookston

The pandemic hasn’t discouraged the University of Minnesota Crookston to share a new program with the business community.

Particularly, it is reaching out to help disadvantaged populations better connect with the business community and provide ways to enhance the hands-on experience of its students. It is doing this with help from a $100,000 endowment by the Veden Foundation and a matching USDA Rural Business Development grant.

Money will fund the Veden Center for Rural Economic Development Mano Amiga program, said Teresa Spaeth, Veden chair of rural development and director of strategic initiatives. “The program is for any Latino business owner or any aspiring individual who wants to explore options for the future,” she said.

Under the Mano Amiga program, there are three opportunities participants can explore: the educational program development course, which is a six-week cohort that will launch sometime in October and will assist participants as they explore career options in the region and principles of business development; technical assistance, which will provide job skill and entrepreneur development assistance to entrepreneurs and small businesses in the region; and an online learning communities class, which provides to rural Latino communities the university’s vast network of expertise in areas affecting Minnesota.

“Early fall,” Spaeth said, “we will be launching the online learning communities and any business or interested community leaders can join a Learning Community.”

At the end of the educational program development class, “folks will have either a career/education pathways plan or a beginning plan for business ownership,” she said. “If they continue to be interested in business development, they will be set up with a SBDC (Small Business Development Center) as well as Veden technical services.”

Mary Holz-Clause, the school’s chancellor, said the university has always tried to be a good neighbor and member of the community, and reaching out to economically disadvantaged populations is one way it can help make a difference. She said the university is excited to help the area’s Latino business owners and entrepreneurs to become successful.

“It’s a group that we’ve reached out to before and it’s a group we will be working with a lot more in the future,” Holz-Clause said.

Spaeth said about 14% of Crookston’s population is Latino, and some 9,000 businesses in Minnesota are Latino-owned. Latino purchasing power in the US is about $1.7 trillion, according to information from the university.

The Mano Amiga program benefits UMN students, too. Instead of interning at jobs off campus, for instance, students may be hired at technical services to provide help to class participants, the community’s business owners and entrepreneurs. This gives students the chance to do hands-on work related to their field of study and get paid for it.

Spaeth said she is excited about this fall in spite of the pandemic, and that the program is something she hopes the university will be able to continue in the future. Each grant lasts about a year, she said.

Black Hills State University

Stickers and signs will be posted at entrances and hallways to remind students to social distance at least 6 feet apart, but they are not the only changes at Black Hills State University.

While no new programs are being implemented this fall, according to Corinne Hansen, director of university and community relations, the school has made a number of other changes to meet student needs.

Some of the big changes this year for BHSU, located in Spearfish, S.D., is having the fall semester start earlier than usual, not taking some of the fall holidays, and letting students have a longer break between Thanksgiving and the new year.

“We will not take the fall holidays that we usually do – Labor Day, Native American Day and Veterans Day. We'll have classes those days,” Hansen said.

She said one reason for this is that the school is trying to discourage travel for the semester. It also will allow students to have a longer holiday break.

“That allows us to move the semester up, and then when students go home for Thanksgiving they won't come back to campus” until after the first of the year, Hansen said. “They will finish their finals online.”

Other things the school is doing is making it easier for students to social distance on campus, and installing Plexiglas in many parts of school buildings.

Classes were moved around so they could better accommodate what Hansen calls “coping capacity.” For instance, larger classes will be held in auditoriums where there is more room to social distance. Other classes will be moved or adjusted to also meet social distancing requirements.

“We just made it work with what the new coping capacity would be,” she said. “And Plexiglas has been added in a lot of places, pretty much everywhere where they would interact with a staff member. … We take this very seriously and it's kind of the culture now. We also have stickers in the hallways, where people might congregate, to remind them to stay 6 feet apart.”

Hansen said students are required to wear masks whenever inside buildings, and outside whenever they are in close proximity to other people.

Andrew Weeks may be reahced @ 701-780-1276 or