For some students in Rochester, a permanent distance-learning option may be just the thing they need. Fortunately for them, a solution for that is in the works.
The Minnesota Department of Education is requiring school districts to develop online-learning options that would be available even once the pandemic is over. Officials with Rochester Public Schools got a look at what that online option could include during a School Board meeting on Tuesday.
"I think an online school is great and overdue," said board member Melissa Amundsen. "I think it's healthy for our school district, it's healthy for our community, and it's healthy for the students and their families to have an additional option to choose from if that's what they feel works best for them."
Elementary schools returned to in-person learning on Monday. Secondary students are scheduled to return to in-person learning April 5. However, students are still able to remain in distance learning if they choose. And, a fairly large number of Rochester's younger students have taken that option thus far.
According to Andrew Neumann, RPS assistant principal of distance learning, there are nearly 1,400 elementary students who have chosen to continue distance learning even though they have the option of returning to the classroom.
Although secondary students haven't actually returned from distance learning yet, Neumann said around 1,800 secondary students have indicated that they intend to remain in distance learning as well.
For now, the district's distance-learning option is still operating as it has throughout the pandemic. For the online school moving forward, however, RPS is planning to build an online education that is more intentional and robust.
Even though RPS is getting the program started, Superintendent Michael Muñoz said it will take a while before it is fully developed. Neumann described a multiyear timeline during his presentation, showing steps toward growing the program.
The online school would be both "supplemental" and "comprehensive," meaning students wouldn't necessarily have to choose between doing all of their coursework in person or all of their coursework online. Additionally, Neumann said even if a student chooses to do a lot of academics online, there still would be opportunities for them to take part in person during things such as lab work, field trips, or other activities.
"Just because the majority of that learning would happen online doesn't mean we can't get back together and build that community," Neumann said.
In addition to providing an online option for the students already in the district, Neumann said the online school could provide a way to attract additional students to RPS. There are more than 22,000 students who are eligible to attend classes through Rochester Public Schools. Fewer than 18,000 of those students actually do.
Of those eligible students not attending RPS, 227 are already attending some form of virtual schools.
Bringing more students to RPS would help the bottom line, since one of the ways the district receives funding is on a per-pupil basis. Neumann explained that the district receives more than $6,600 for each elementary student in the district, and nearly $8,000 for each student in grades 7-12.
That means the district is missing out on more than $1.6 million for the 227 students who live in the district but are involved with other virtual learning options not associated with RPS.
"We really could be and should be the No. 1 choice for our students, especially in our community," Neumann said.