Minnesota schools plan to continue virtual learning options in fall 2021

Independent learners, elite athletes and students with anxiety are helping fuel demand for more remote instruction.

A woman and teenager look at a laptop as they sit in a classroom.
Principal Crystal Ballard sits in on a distance learning class with student Leo Carlson, 17, in September at Hopkins High School. Many districts say they'll continue to offer virtual learning in fall of 2021 — just one example of how the pandemic has changed the face of education.
Christine T. Nguyen | MPR News 2020

Stillwater Public School leaders have helped many of their staff get vaccinated. They’ve reopened their elementary schools for in-person learning. But as they plan for the next academic year, they are still planning to make online learning a part of regular life. 

“Those are the questions we are asking on a daily basis: What is next year going to look like?” said Carissa Keister, spokesperson for Stillwater Area Public Schools. “We’re hoping that we can be back to a more regular schedule and get our kids in front of our teachers every day. We know that’s what’s best for them. But we certainly know we have to plan for anything, which is the one thing we have learned this year.” 

Last week the district sent out a survey to families to learn how many might be interested in a 100 percent online learning option for next year. 

The number of districts applying to the Education Department for approval to become online education providers has doubled this year. That’s according to Jeff Plaman, an online and digital learning specialist at the Minnesota Department of Education.

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“Right now it’s a real exciting time for online education,” said Plaman. “We’ve gone from a relatively small number of schools that were experienced in this process to an entire workforce that has experienced online education almost overnight.”

The COVID-19 virus has deeply disrupted learning for Minnesota students over the past 11 months. Even now, only about a quarter of Minnesota schools are fully in person. The majority of high schools are in distance learning or hybrid, and although many of the youngest students now have the option to go back to in-person learning, some elementary schools have had to temporarily revert back to distance learning because of COVID-19 outbreaks among students and staff. 

But some of the changes forced during the pandemic will continue to define Minnesota education going forward. 

Most of the other districts applying for permission to continue offering virtual learning are in the metro or greater metro area. 

“The experience has shown people that learning can take place with flexibility in terms of place and in terms of time. It’s exposed them to new ways of thinking and learning that they hadn’t explored before,” Plaman said. “Many of them were forced into change because of the closure of schools in the spring.”

Who’s thriving with distance learning?

Many students and families prefer in-person learning. But there is a subset of students who’ve found they prefer virtual learning: independent learners, elite athletes, students who struggle with anxiety in school buildings or students whose housing situation is unstable and who are highly mobile.

Some districts see online learning not only as a way to give their students more options, but also as a plan that might help them with looming budget constraints. 

Leanne Kampfe, the principal at Hopkins West Junior High, said her district is thinking about ways it might offer virtual learning as an option students could choose. It’s still in the planning stages, but it might be a way to allow them to make necessary budget cuts while still serving students. It’s an approach they’re calling “blended learning” that would combine in-person and virtual learning and could have teachers and paraprofessionals working together to teach students with more independent learning from students on devices. 

“It can promote a much higher level of independence for students. It pushes teachers out of being a lecturer and really promotes students' inquiry or students taking the lead on what they want to know,” Kampfe said. “It’s both looking at how do we change our instructional model so that it doesn’t look like what education has looked like forever, along with the fact that it provides some economic advantages. Or could provide some economic advantages.” 

There’s so much interest in virtual learning that some school administration groups are proposing a bill to allow districts to offer distance learning options without having to go through the full virtual learning provider certification process currently required under state law. 

Lean budgets

While not every district is considering virtual learning, many are facing budget constraints as they plan for the next academic year, said Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Metropolitan Association of School Administrators. 

“What we’re hearing is that a number of districts are going to be facing some pretty significant (budget) challenges,” Croonquist said. “What’s added to the difficulty this year is the pandemic-related enrollment decline that the vast majority of districts have experienced.” 

Budget woes may mean fewer staff come fall. It may also mean many districts will run operating referendum campaigns to try to raise more money.  

Of course, regardless of the money raised and the budgets reconciled, the most influential factor in what school looks like next year will be what happens with the spread of COVID-19. 

“It’s really going to be the pandemic and the virus that will determine what things look like next fall,” Croonquist said.