Rochester Public Schools looks to launch permanent online school

Rochester Public Schools announced Tuesday it is in the process of developing a full-time online school for the upcoming fall, providing a permanent distance learning option for the nearly 18,000 students enrolled in the district.

In a unanimous 7-0 vote Tuesday evening, the Rochester School Board gave the OK for district staff to submit an application to the Minnesota Department of Education establishing “permanent online K-12 comprehensive education” for the 2021-22 school year.

Under Covid guidelines, the state’s Safe Learning Plan already requires districts to provide an “equitable distance learning model” for any student that chooses to opt out for medical reasons — no documentation required. In a presentation to the board, however, Elton Hills Elementary School principal Andrew Neumann said the online model is designed to become a permanent offering for RPS students — with the aim to be the “number one online choice in the country” in the coming decade.

“We know there’s great potential here,” said Neumann. “We’re excited for what we’re going to do, recognizing that this will grow year by year.”

Neumann said roughly 1,340 elementary students are still in a full-time distance learning model, and roughly 1,830 secondary students are expected to stay at home when in-person learning returns on April 5. This new model would cater to those students, who have chosen to stay virtual for a multitude of reasons besides Covid-19 concerns.

“We have a lot of students that are staying online, not because of health anymore, but because of the excellent work our elementary teachers are doing — and because it’s been a good format for their child,” said Neumann.

If plans move forward, RPS students would be given the opportunity to pick and choose how many online classes they take; for example, a student could take their core classes online, but come into their respective school for a music class. Teachers would likely split time teaching in-person and online classes, as the district plans to build a full-time online staff.

While the board voted unanimously to send the application to the Department of Education, directors indicated they would need to learn more about the program, likely in a future study session, before approving the program itself, citing uncertainties around staffing and financial burdens. The district estimates building an online curriculum would cost at least $212,000.

Superintendent Michael Muñoz said the plans were “exciting,” but added it would likely take multiple years to fully realize the district’s vision.

“We have a great plan here, but it’s not going to look like that on day one,” said Muñoz. “It’s going to take some time to build the capacity, to get where you truly have a full online academy and a full staff dedicated just to the online academy.” 

The district plans to launch a registration page for the online school by April, and would begin the onboarding process for interested students, parents and teachers soon after.

Isaac Jahns is a Rochester native and a 2019 graduate of the Missouri School of Journalism. He reports on politics, business and music for Med City Beat.

Cover photo licensed via Getty

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