Thousands of Minnesota students will begin their first day of the new school year by opening up their laptops at home, even as many of their classmates board the bus for school.

Under Gov. Tim Walz’s executive order, school districts and charter schools have some flexibility in their reopening decisions. Some plan to bring all students back, while others expect to blend shortened weeks at school with distance learning at home, depending on how much the COVID-19 virus is spreading in their communities.

Whatever they decide, all public schools must also provide a full-time distance learning option for students who don’t want to return to the classroom during the pandemic — and many families are taking them up on the option. Districts are still gathering responses from parents to determine exactly how many students will remain at home, but several administrators said they expect it could amount to about 20% of their enrollment.

In some places, the numbers could be even higher. About 30% of students in the Bloomington school district will begin the year in the district’s full-time online school or in its newly designed remote learning program that will more closely mirror instruction happening in the classroom. That count includes Rebekah Nelson’s children, a sixth-grader and high school sophomore, who will be learning from home at least through the fall semester.

Nelson said the decision to stick with distance learning was tough, and the situation is “not ideal.” But as a nurse, she’s seen the impact of COVID-19 up close. She isn’t convinced schools will be able to keep the virus from spreading, especially to teachers, bus drivers and other adults who may be at higher risk of complications.

“I’m going into this with the recognition that my kids are probably not going to get the best education ever this year,” Nelson said. “But they can catch up. I don’t want my child to be the one who infects a teacher that dies.”

Better than before?

Districts’ plans for distance learning vary, but many are offering parents a similar promise: that it will be better than last spring’s “crisis mode” remote learning.

With three months of experience and a summer of preparation under their belts, teachers and administrators say they’ve had time to reflect on what worked and what didn’t, and they’re well aware that many students and families had a negative first run at distance learning. More than half of respondents to an informal parent survey by the Minnesota Department of Education this summer said their distance learning experience this spring was “bad” or “very bad.”

Many schools will now provide more “synchronous” learning, when teachers are live in front of students, and issue daily and weekly schedules so parents know when their children are expected to tune into class or complete schoolwork. Administrators said they’re also working to give better guidance for teachers, parents and students on how to use online learning platforms — and simplifying how many systems everyone is expected to use. Teachers are designing lesson plans specifically for distance learning, rather than trying to adapt traditional classroom curriculum on the fly.

“Our teachers have really stepped into the challenge, with new learning, new ideas and rethinking some of the ideas they’d done in the past,” said Rachel Gorton, director of technology for the Burnsville school district.

Schools spent the summer making sure they have enough iPads or laptops for students who opt for distance learning — or for everyone, should the spread of the virus force schools to shift entirely online. Some will hand out wireless hot spots, or will cover basic internet costs for families who lack access.

But there are plenty of new challenges this time around.

Erin Averbeck, a Minneapolis Public Schools second-grade teacher, said she expects this semester will be an improvement over the spring, though getting all students connected will be an ongoing challenge. But because she works in one of a handful of Minnesota districts that has decided to start the year with all students online, she said her workload will be smaller than that of teachers who may be expected to work with students in multiple locations.

“I can’t imagine teaching a full class as well as having to do the distance learning as well,” she said.

Questions remain

Schools across the state are still figuring out who will teach distance learners, and whether those teachers will have to tend to both remote and in-person students at the same time. Most can’t answer those questions until they answer several more: How many students plan to stay at home? How many teachers with underlying medical conditions will request to work remotely? Will the grade levels of the distance learning students match up with the teachers who want to teach online?

Sorting out those puzzles will take time because of how many teachers and students are weighing their options. In the Anoka-Hennepin district, the state’s largest, administrators estimate that 10 to 15% of teachers have an underlying medical condition or a family member with medical concerns that may prevent them from returning to the classroom.

In many cases, districts are asking parents to choose between in-person and distance learning now, and commit to the choice for a full semester. Some will offer opportunities throughout the year to change, and school leaders say they want to try to be flexible with individual families’ situations. But each time a family decides to make a shift, it will have a big impact; districts will have to alter carefully crafted plans for limited-capacity bus routes, figure out how to deliver meals at home and calculate the impact on classroom size.

Meanwhile, schools are busy designing distance-learning curriculum that tracks well with what students are learning in classrooms, so students won’t be left behind if they make a move.

“Logistically, it is just so demanding,” said Carl Schlueter, executive director of Seven Hills Preparatory Academy, a charter school with campuses in Richfield and Bloomington.

However it shakes out, distance learning may become a longer-term reality in many districts, even after the pandemic recedes.

Bemidji Area Schools administrators had previously considered developing an online academy for middle- and high school students but now find themselves with an unexpected opportunity to make it a reality. Colleen Cardenuto, the district’s director of curriculum and administrative services, said the distance learning this year may help lay the groundwork for an online academy in which students could enroll full time or for specific classes.

“We’re hoping to use this to grow our district,” she said.