The Rochester School Board on Tuesday received an update on the creation of an online school, after hearing criticism and praise from the public on topics such as equity and mask use.

Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel praised the district's creation of the online school.

"I believe school districts don't often enough take chances and learn from what doesn't work and scale up what does, so this is an instance in which we're going to offer a great program," he said. "But there's a lot of work between now and then."

Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel listens during public comments during a School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel listens during public comments during a School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

During the pandemic, the Minnesota Department of Education informed school districts that they needed to develop a permanent online option for students, even after returning to in-person learning.

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The Rochester School District lost more than 600 students during the 2020-21 school year. The effect of that loss was compounded by the fact that the district had been anticipating growth, not regress. At the time, RPS Finance Director John Carlson said the district hoped to recoup approximately 25% of the students it lost. The online school is one of the ways it's hoping to attract more students.

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The district first announced its plans for the online school in March, and has since been making an effort to publicize it. Postcards have been sent to thousands of homes in Rochester and the surrounding communities.

During an earlier update on the project, Andrew Neumann, RPS assistant principal of distance learning, said there are more than 22,000 students eligible to attend Rochester Public Schools, but fewer than 18,000 actually do.

So far, there are nearly 500 students enrolled in the online school, which is set to open this fall. That includes 120 elementary students, 94 middle school students and 275 high school students.

Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel speaks during a school board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Rochester Public Schools Interim Superintendent Kent Pekel speaks during a school board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

According to the district, 153 of those high school students have enrolled in the online school on a part-time basis. Jacque Peterson, executive director of elementary and secondary education, said the district is also offering some services to area home-schoolers.

"We're opening up a door and connecting with our home-school families," she said.

The district has hired teachers for the elementary online grades, and is in the process of hiring secondary teachers. A counselor and an instructional coach have also been hired.

During the previous presentation, however, Neumann said it could take several years to fully develop the district's online program. He presented a seven-year timeline between the start of the program and the program becoming the "number 1 online choice for students and families in the country."

Before the main agenda, the school board heard from seven audience members during the public comments section, with comments for and against equity.

Pekel has repeatedly stated the district does not teach critical race theory, but that has not convinced everyone.

"What it is, sir, is an ideology, and it is here in Rochester," Jim Niehoff said, addressing Pekel. "I have heard testimony from parents, as well as from employees inside the Rochester Public Schools system."

Jim Niehoff speaks during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Jim Niehoff speaks during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Another speaker, Elena Niehoff, challenged the district's mask requirement, questioning their efficacy.

"Have you asked yourselves why our god didn't create us with the mask on?" she said. "It's because all of us have the unique capacity to remove carbon dioxide and other toxins with each breath."

Elena Niehoff speaks during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Elena Niehoff speaks during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin

Freddie Suhler took a different stance, thanking the school board for its emphasis on health and safety.

"I just want to thank you guys all for putting your students' health and safety at the forefront of all the decisions you've made," he said.

Freddie Suhler, a student at Lourdes High School with the Rochester Community Initiative, thanks the board for supporting students’ health and diversity during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin
Freddie Suhler, a student at Lourdes High School with the Rochester Community Initiative, thanks the board for supporting students’ health and diversity during a Rochester Public Schools School Board meeting on Tuesday, August 3, 2021, at the Edison Administration Building in Rochester. Traci Westcott / Post Bulletin