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Year in education marked by virus, retirements, elections

Year in education marked by virus, retirements, elections

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Mandan High School graduation

Mandan seniors pose for a picture before taking part in the graduation ceremony on May 22, 2020. Restrictions led to modified ceremonies for high school graduates.

The year in education in the area was marked not only by the pandemic but by retirements, deaths, buildings and elections.

Longtime Bismarck State College President Larry Skogen retired at the end of June, passing the baton to Doug Jensen, former president of Rock Valley College in Rockford, Illinois. Skogen had served as BSC president since 2007. The state Board of Higher Education in March chose Jensen as his successor. Forty-one people applied for the job.

Jensen said that it was "an interesting time to come on board."

"Throughout the pandemic, everyone at BSC has been focused on making sure students can keep moving toward their life and educational goals," he said. "Our students’ and employees’ commitment to the COVID mitigation measures ensured the campus could remain open. I’m grateful for their commitment. We’ve learned a lot along the way, and are positioned for a successful spring."

To the west, Dickinson State University alum Stephen Easton became that school's 13th president.

Two longtime leaders in higher education in the area died in 2020.

Sister Thomas Welder, the longtime former leader of the University of Mary and a person considered to be one of the more influential leaders in North Dakota history, died in June, after battling cancer. Welder became the school's fifth president in 1978, and she shepherded the college to university status in 1986. She retired in July 2009, continuing to serve the school in the area of mission advancement.

Former longtime United Tribes Technical College President David Gipp, a national leader in American Indian higher education, died in September after an extended illness. He served as president of the Bismarck school run by North Dakota tribes from 1977 until 2015, when he moved into a chancellor role.

The coronavirus pandemic was the main issue for colleges and secondary schools in the region this year. Schools went to distance learning when the pandemic hit last spring. Restrictions led to modified ceremonies for 2020 high school graduates. "COVID-19 has stormed the world. It has stormed our world," Mandan Valedictorian Kayla Wentz said during her speech in May.

Schools have been operating this academic year with hybrid models -- some online learning and some in-class instruction.

Both Bismarck Public Schools and Mandan Public Schools decided earlier this month to move to all-day in-person learning for all grade levels starting in January, after weeks of declines in COVID-19 cases.

"A lot has changed," Bismarck Superintendent Jason Hornbacher said at the Dec. 14 school board meeting, adding that the move was thoroughly researched because “We wanted to make sure when we’re taking a step forward we don’t take two steps back.”

Board member Dan Eastgate said "I'm excited for my own middle-schooler, when he gets to be day to day with his buddies, and I continue to be optimistic that we are as a district and as a community going to keep moving forward in a healthy way, in a safe way, for the very best for our kids."

Teachers groups in both cities said they also desire a return to normal, as long as it's safe.

"The teachers are excited to have the kids back at school," elementary school teacher and Mandan Education Association President Barb Luetzen told the Tribune. "As far as concerns, of course there are concerns. However, we are confident that our district has made the right decision in bringing our students back full time." 

Gov. Doug Burgum said during a recent public coronavirus briefing that the goal is to get all students back into in-person learning in 2021. Thirty schools at the time had signed up for once-a-week rapid testing for teachers, administrators and staff, and "we would like to see all schools inquiring about regular testing," he said.

“This kind of surveillance testing is what’s going to allow us to keep going with sports, it’s going to allow us to keep kids learning in person, it’s going to be a big tool,” the governor said.

New school construction also marked the year.

The Bismarck School Board in May approved the construction of two elementary schools in the northern part of the city to address rising enrollment. Ground was broken at a northwest site in October. Groundbreaking for a northeastern school is planned in the spring. A public forum will be held sometime in January on school boundaries being developed by Bismarck Public Schools.

U-Mary in September unveiled its new School of Engineering.

St. Mary's Central High dedicated its Myron Atkinson and T. Clem Casey Fine Arts Center and the William J. Schmidt Auditorium.

Voters in both the Mandan and Bismarck school districts in June elected new school board members. Dan Eastgate and Donnell Preskey Hushka were newly elected in Bismarck. In Mandan, challenger Darren Haugen won a seat, along with incumbents Kama Hoovestol and Marnie Piehl.

Statewide, voters in June soundly rejected a ballot measure that would have expanded the State Board of Higher Education, which oversees North Dakota's 11 public colleges and universities. The measure received just 27% approval.

Reach Blake Nicholson at 701-250-8266 or blake.nicholson@bismarcktribune.com.

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