Cathe Lewis' three children have spent the school year learning from home, steering clear of the potential COVID-19 health risks and schedule disruptions of in-person or hybrid instruction.

Along the way, the family discovered something surprising: online learning was a good fit, especially for her son, a sixth-grader with autism.

"Early on in the school year he was like, 'Can we keep doing this, can I stay in online school?' " Lewis said. Her answer: Yes.

Bloomington Public Schools, where the family is enrolled, is one of a surging number of Minnesota school districts planning to make full-time online school a permanent option for thousands of students. Buoyed by nearly a year of experience with online learning, and facing a still-uncertain timeline for the pandemic's end, some school leaders are pushing hard to launch their own online schools as soon as this fall.

Many see the move as a natural extension of the changes wrought by the pandemic, and an opportunity to put the equipment and experience from distance learning to good use. Some worry that if they don't offer an online option, they'll lose students who want to stay in the virtual world, either because of virus-related concerns or a newfound preference for online learning.

John Weisser, executive director of technology for the Bloomington school district, said educators expect a majority of students will opt for in-person learning. But he said some students who have struggled with traditional school schedules, social interactions or class offerings may prefer online instruction.

"This is a silver lining of COVID; now many families are going to have those options," he said. It's not yet clear how many options students will have for online learning this fall, but it is certain there will be far more than at any time in the past. There are 38 state-approved online programs operating now, and the Minnesota Department of Education typically gets three or four applications for new online learning programs each year. All approved programs are open to students statewide.

The department is reviewing applications from 15 public districts or charter schools, and another 25 districts have said their applications are on the way. Among them: Anoka-Hennepin, Austin, Burnsville, Elk River, Osseo, Owatonna, St. Cloud and St. Paul. Many of the applications are for online programs that would serve students as young as kindergartners — a major shift from pre-pandemic times, when most online programs were limited to middle- and high-schoolers.

"I have four new inquiries today — just today," Jeff Plaman, the Department of Education's online and digital learning specialist, said last week. "It's a busy time at the online learning office."

'Building a new school'

Typically, state officials take a few months to review new program applications and work with districts or charter schools, making sure they have robust plans in place that are appropriately designed and staffed to deliver instruction that meets state standards. Then, the state recommends the districts take a full year to get all their plans in place before enrolling students.

But this year, eager to stay ahead of the pandemic and in line with student preferences, most districts don't intend to wait 12 months. Some that have not yet submitted final applications intend to have students in their new online schools in September. Some of the online options being proposed have been in the works for years, but many were seen as a longer-term goal before the pandemic.

That's the case in the Osseo school district, where leaders were gradually expanding online course options for high school students as a supplement to regular classes. Now, that's on the back burner as the district fast-tracks plans for a K-12 online school. It has already accepted 1,500 applications for the program — amounting to close to 7% of the district's overall enrollment — as it works to sort out critical logistics: Who will teach the online students? Will they teach from home, a school building or somewhere else? Will there be enough students enrolled in specific grade levels, or courses, to make the online option work across the school system?

"We're building a new school — just in a virtual space," said Anthony Padrnos, Osseo's executive director of technology. Leaders in several districts said they don't intend to double up teachers' responsibilities with simultaneous in-person and online classes. They imagine that elementary teachers assigned to the virtual schools will teach only online, while some high school teachers may spend a few class periods a day with in-person students and the rest teaching online classes.

But in most districts, those specifics are still far from being ironed out, along with questions about who will do the teaching.

Uncertain demand

In some existing online programs, districts have hired outside educational agencies that have provided the staff, and that has caused some problems in the past. A large online learning program operated by the Worthington school district in southwest Minnesota canceled such a partnership — and lost the majority of its approximately 700 enrolled students — in 2020 after the Minnesota Department of Education received complaints about the quality of the instruction and teachers who lacked the proper credentials to work in Minnesota schools.

Eden Prairie, like several other districts, plans to staff its online school with the district's teachers. Administrators say the combination of wide-ranging class offerings, district teachers and the offer of devices and technology support will attract students from within and outside the district.

"Our goal is to give an opportunity for every student in the state of Minnesota to experience Eden Prairie schools and our amazing teachers and to inspire those students as well," said Raymond Diaz, the director of the EP Online program.

Perhaps the biggest variable for districts is how much the demand for online education will wane along with the pandemic, and how much will remain constant. Many of the families who have signed up or expressed interest in the new online schools may be unsure of how long they'll want their students at home. Pushkar Preeti said she's been pleased with her son's distance-learning experience with Eden Prairie Schools this year, and has already signed him up for first grade in the district's new online school. But when conditions improve, she's eager to let him experience school in a classroom.

"We already opted for the online program, but definitely I don't want the kids to be at home forever," she said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790