Ridgewater College's fall semester will start with distance learning and plan to move back to campus when possible

Ridgewater College students will begin the 2020 fall semester with distance learning and the hope that their traditional classes will be able to move on to campus at some point. The plan offers faculty and students a definite plan at a time when so many things have become uncertain.

The usually busy Student Center on Ridgewater College's Willmar campus is quiet this spring, open only for students who need to use computers and the internet. Linda Vanderwerf / West Central Tribune

Editor's note: This story was edited after Ridgewater College officials clarified their fall semester plans.

WILLMAR — Ridgewater College plans to open this fall offering its full curriculum via the internet. Summer courses will also be offered utilizing online resources and technology.

School officials said It offers a small slice of certainty in a world where so many things seem to change by the day or even by the hour.

“People don’t like this open-ended uncertainty,” said President Craig Johnson. “They want someone to tell them on this date, something will happen.”

Given all the variables and uncertainty of the pandemic, the college can’t plan to have its regular schedule of in-person classes on campus at this point, he said, but it may be possible at some point in the fall semester. Instructors of traditional courses will teach using virtual meeting technology but still following the class schedule that would be followed if classes were face-to-face. When they are able to return to campus, they will continue to follow that schedule.


In March, Gov. Tim Walz ordered the state’s colleges to close their campuses and shift to online learning. For now, the college has a handful of people working on the Willmar and Hutchinson campus.

Both campuses are open to students who need to use computers or the internet, said Kelly Magnuson, vice president of advancement and outreach. People on campus are expected to follow social distancing and hand-washing procedures.

The college has developed procedures for students who didn’t make the transition well to the remote learning or found it did not fit well into their lives.

Some parents had to put their college studies aside during the day to help with children’s distance learning needs.

While most students were able to complete their coursework, some technical programs require more hours of face-to-face instruction to complete licensing requirements. Walz signed an executive order this week allowing that instruction to go on while campuses remain closed.

The deadline to drop a class was extended, to help students who were unable to finish their entire class load.

Students were not allowed to drop a class unless they spoke with a counselor. “We wanted them to have the best advice available,” Magnuson said. ”They knew what the ramifications were if they dropped or withdrew.”

In some cases, the college was able to help students with unexpected life expenses that threatened to derail their studies. For others, it took some guidance from the college’s technology staffers.


Students also had a new pass/no credit grading option if their grades were not what they would have been without the upheaval. The new option will not harm their GPA, and the class credits will transfer to other Minnesota State institutions.

Transcripts will have an asterisk on spring 2020 grades, Magnuson said.

Some faculty members struggled at first with the new format, too.

“Our faculty did an amazing job in two or three weeks, flipping it around,” Johnson said. “It’s one thing to get it set up; it’s another thing to do it for weeks and weeks.”

For faculty members who were used to interaction and reading body language of students, “It’s not the same,” Magnuson said. One instructor told her, simply, “I miss my students.”

Johnson agreed. “Education is a people business, and to take away that direct human interaction isn’t the same,” he said. “Doing it constantly through a screen is not the same.”

As the spring semester draws to a close this week, students, parents and college staff are all saddened that there won’t be a graduation ceremony this spring. Graduates of 2020 will be invited to go through the ceremony with the 2021 class. “I hope some do,” Johnson said.

Ridgewater often has a large portion of first-generation college graduates. It’s difficult “to take away our commencement from so many first-generation students,” Johnson said.


It’s particularly moving to see families watching their first member receive a diploma, he said. “It reinforces why what we do matters.”

In 42 years in the newspaper industry, Linda Vanderwerf has worked at several daily newspapers in Minnesota, including the Mesabi Daily News, now called the Mesabi Tribune in Virginia. Previously, she worked for the Las Cruces Sun-News in New Mexico and the Rapid City Journal in the Black Hills of South Dakota. She has been a reporter at the West Central Tribune for nearly 27 years.

Vanderwerf can be reached at email: or phone 320-214-4340
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