Minneapolis students haven't been in the classroom this year, focused instead on learning online during the pandemic. Now their parents are also staring at the screens — logging on to get a glimpse inside the buildings their children might attend next year.

Schools across the district are hosting virtual open houses, complete with video tours, introductions from principals and teachers and time for parents' questions.

The open houses, traditionally held in person and aimed at pre-K, kindergarten and new students, carry extra weight this year. The rollout of Minneapolis Public Schools' comprehensive district design means that thousands of students have been assigned a new school for next fall.

Parents who dislike the school assignments have until Feb. 7 to request that their child be enrolled in a different school.

"We wanted these [virtual tours] to show the spirit and culture of the school so that families could get that gut feeling that they would've gotten had they come through the front door," said Martha Swanson, the district's director of student placement.

Some schools are offering multiple open houses, including several conducted in other languages. The live sessions allow for questions and answers in real time, but parents can also access the recordings on their own time.

Celina Martina, executive director of engagement and external relations for the district, said the virtual option eliminates many scheduling or transportation barriers that may have prevented families from attending in-person open houses.

"This is critically important because we know that many families are getting assigned to new schools and we want them to know what their options are," Martina said. "This is about giving them that chance to see the faces of teachers and have their toughest questions answered."

Lyndale Community Schools Principal Meghan O'Connor has now led three open houses for those interested in attending the school in south Minneapolis.

Each of the hourlong Zoom sessions began with a video featuring a short tour of the school. Parents then heard from teachers and staff and watched recorded videos of Lyndale students talking about their experience.

"Choosing a school is such a big decision," O'Connor said. "Every single parent wants their child to feel safe, welcome and happy at their school."

The video session can't give families the full experience of walking through a school full of students, but it is working to "fill the gap" until in-person tours are possible, O'Connor said.

Nearly 200 people tuned in to the first of Washburn High School's online open house, which included videos from each department, a student panel and a chance for parents to ask questions.

"While we don't love everything being online, we do plan to have our April open house be virtual as well, even if students are back in person," said Principal Emily Palmer.

The virtual open houses will never fully replace in-person school visits, Swanson said.

But she hopes they will continue long after the pandemic ends.

And she's enjoyed hearing stories of how students, including incoming kindergartners, have bonded with their future teachers and future classmates across the screen.

"I see this as an exciting move forward," she said. "It's such a shame that families can't physically see our buildings right now, but this is a really great option that I'd love to see continue."

The schedule of remaining open houses can be found online at mpls.k12.mn.us/request-kickoff.

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440