Most Minnesota school districts spent the pandemic year working furiously to bring students out of distance learning and back into classrooms, eager to resume the type of learning experience that can't easily be replicated at home.

But at the same time, many have also been undertaking a separate task: figuring out how to keep teaching students online, forever.

From Albert Lea to Bemidji to St. Paul, the number of public school districts and charters racing to build online academies is soaring. If all of the programs awaiting review by the state Department of Education get the go-ahead, Minnesota will approve more new online programs this year than it has in the past 25 years combined. It's a transformation that's opening up a vast menu of options for students and families who want to remain online — and a host of questions about how a once-fringe element of Minnesota's K-12 system stands to reshape schools, teaching and learning across the state.

"This whole explosion of interest in digital technologies and the experience with the pandemic is something that we'll be working through what it means for quite awhile," said Alex Molnar, an education professor at the University of Colorado Boulder's National Education Policy Center who has tracked virtual learning for years.

For districts struggling under the weight of pandemic-related enrollment declines and budget uncertainty, the stakes are high. Without a permanent online option, many school leaders fear an exodus of students who want that, and the loss of tens of thousands of dollars — or more — in critical state funding.

"If a district doesn't offer distance learning, I believe families will move with their feet," said John Weisser, executive director of technology for the Bloomington school district.

But to keep up, many districts must assemble an entirely new school in a matter of months.

They must make rapid-fire decisions on how to build their own virtual classroom plans or lean on for-profit education companies eagerly marketing their curriculum to schools across the country. They must determine who will teach the online classes, and from where; figure out how to provide special education services, meals and extracurricular opportunities for students learning at home; and ensure that the virtual school experience can match the breadth and rigor of what students would get in the classroom.

In the meantime, as students and families make their own calculations, districts have to quickly spread the word about their plans and differentiate themselves from their growing list of competitors. All state-approved online programs are open to any Minnesota student, regardless of where they live.

Brainerd High School Principal Andrea Rusk said she believes in-person learning is and will continue to be the best fit for most students. She understands why many people might wonder why schools are pushing online education, especially after a year in which many students and families struggled with distance learning. But, she said, online learning is here to stay.

It's not just Minnesota: A nationwide survey published in late 2020 by the RAND Corporation found that two in 10 school districts intended to launch a virtual learning option, or had already done so.

"We can't just say, post-pandemic, online learning is going to cease to exist," Rusk said. "Emergency distance learning is what most of us have been doing for a year. And this is a completely different model, and we want to do it well."

Families got hooked

In Owatonna, Andrew and Stacy Hadt had never considered enrolling their three children in an online school. But when the pandemic hit, the Hadts felt the district's online option was the safest bet for their family. As weeks turned to months with the kids logging on from home, they settled into a surprisingly comfortable routine.

Gone was the morning scramble to get the family out the door, and the struggle to pry small details about school out of the kids at day's end. Riley, an eighth-grader, liked making his way through lessons without classmates bent on disrupting the teacher. Fifth-grader Carter felt more confident about asking his teacher for help in an e-mail or classroom chat window. Andrew, who became a stay-at-home dad during the pandemic, enjoyed overseeing the kids' work, leading them in physical activities and making lunch together every day.

The Hadts were so sold on online school that they started filling out paperwork for a program outside of their district — until Owatonna Public Schools sent out notice that it would be launching a virtual school this fall. While the family is still taking pandemic precautions, Stacy Hadt said it's no longer the main thing keeping them online.

"It started that way, but we're moving [online] because it's so much better for our kids, long term," she said.

It's not clear yet how many families will follow the same path. As of early June, 75 students were signed up for Owatonna's online school, a number that represents about 2% of the district's enrollment. In Bloomington, about 575 students had signed up — about 6% of the district's overall enrollment. Burnsville has 323 students already registered, amounting to about 4% of total enrollment.

Michelle Krell, director of teaching and learning for Owatonna Public Schools, said her district was already thinking about the 2021-22 school year last fall.

"We did have families reaching out, saying: 'Are you going to offer this next year? And if you don't, we're going to look at another online provider,' " she said.

Some parents wanted assurances their students could learn online until the pandemic recedes. But others, like the Hadts, decided it was a good fit, pandemic or not. Students who had struggled with bullying were happier and more content to focus on schoolwork. Others relished the flexibility to pack in more family time, activities or part-time jobs.

Each student comes with about $10,000 in state funding, so each one lost or gained is significant. And it's clear many school districts are feeling the pressure. As of early June, there were close to 70 new online programs that had been approved or were making their way through the process.

That is a staggering jump for the state's online education landscape.

Minnesota began approving online schools in the mid-1990s as a handful of school districts and virtual charter schools began to experiment with courses designed for students — mostly at the high school level — who wanted to learn from home or take classes that weren't available in their district.

Over the next 2 ½ decades, the state approved about 50 online providers, including several that operated for only a year or two before shutting down. By the 2019-20 academic year, there were 37 operating online programs, and about 24,300 students attending school online full time. That represented just a sliver of the state's more than 500 districts and charter schools and nearly 894,000 enrolled students.

Now, more than 12% of Minnesota's school districts and charters are poised to offer their own programs in the fall.

It's serious business

As the applications pour in, they all land (virtually) on the desk of Jeff Plaman, the lone member of the Minnesota Department of Education's Online Learning Office. By law, the state must accept or reject applications within 90 days of receiving them, so Plaman must work quickly to question districts and scrutinize each plan.

Districts must lay out a detailed road map for their new schools, from how often students will receive live virtual instruction to whether the curriculum for each grade level — developed in-house or purchased from a company — meets state requirements. Once the application is approved, the department recommends districts spend 12 months finalizing plans before launching the programs. But in this year's race to maintain an online option, districts are skipping that step.

Plaman said the process forces districts to reckon with how their plans are different — and more complex — from emergency distance learning. He said some schools have assumed their pandemic experience has made them ready to run an online academy, but that isn't the case.

"I was just talking to a district yesterday, saying this has forced us to have discussions we needed to have about online learning," Plaman said.

Plans approved so far show considerable variation. Some, including those in Owatonna, Cambridge-Isanti, Bloomington and Burnsville, are open to all students, starting in kindergarten. Others are more limited, like Brainerd's plan to offer supplemental online high school classes.

Most districts plan to have some middle and high school teachers who split their days between online and in-person classes. Elementary teachers, meanwhile, would be dedicated only to online students, which means many could continue to teach from their homes — or locations far from their district's boundaries.

Third-grade teacher Emilee Vlasin spent this year teaching students in Bloomington's online program and has signed up for virtual teaching again next school year. She said she knows there have been downsides for students learning online this year, particularly in terms of the social interaction and development that happens at school. But she said she worked hard to create a sense of community in her class.

"There are students who are really thriving in this online setting, and I think it's important that we keep the option open," she said.

A few districts, including Bloomington, are building and operating programs entirely in-house. But some are signing up for systems run by companies that design curriculum and sometimes provide teachers. Costs of the programs vary, and represent only a portion of districts' total expenses for educating each online student.

In their online program applications, districts provide a glimpse into the calculations: Cambridge-Isanti's plan calls for spending $750 per student for the Edmentum course system. St. Michael-Albertville's listed budget is $5,700 for a year of Edmentum course materials for 50 students. Owatonna will use Edgenuity curriculum for a limited number of older students, but the district has not yet determined the cost.

Using outside curriculum is common. But those programs have raised some red flags, including in Minnesota. In 2020, the Worthington school district abruptly cut ties with one company and lost nearly 700 enrolled students after the state received complaints about the quality of the program and teachers who lacked Minnesota credentials.

Weisser, with the Bloomington district, said he thinks the detailed state application process is important, because it's the first step in ensuring schools can deliver on what they're promising.

"This should be serious business before you are allowed to take taxpayer money and educate students," Weisser said. "Because you're not playing around with widgets, you know what I mean?"