All Minnesota public schools can choose to offer an online learning option this fall — but they won't be required to do so, as they were earlier in the pandemic.

The Minnesota Department of Education made that announcement this month, loosening the requirements for districts and charters that wanted to keep distance learning even as most students return to classrooms.

Instead of having to get the state's full approval as a permanent online learning provider, districts can provide online classes to their students as they work through a longer application process.

It's not clear how many districts intend to provide an online option for their students, especially since districts have just six or seven weeks to build a program from scratch if they weren't already planning on it.

Many school leaders had hoped that the Legislature would act during the spring to approve a bill that would permit distance learning options for all districts, but that didn't happen.

That left state education officials to change the rules themselves, providing what they hope will be important flexibility for school systems worried about losing enrollment and for families that want to stay at home but stay connected to their home district.

"We know one of the things everyone is worried about is the safety, health and wellness of their students," said Minnesota Education Commissioner Heather Mueller, "and they want to stay with their home schools."

Minnesota is seeing a record number of districts and charters making applications for new, permanent virtual schools.

More new programs have been approved, or are in the approval pipeline this year, than in all of the past 25 years combined.

The resulting application backlog, plus the number of districts concerned about losing students to other schools with online offerings, contributed to the state's decision to open up the online option in a broader way.

The state has not yet released its recommendations for COVID-19 protocols for the 2021-22 school year, but Mueller said those guidelines, on things like mask-wearing, social distancing and other precautions, will be out by the end of July.

Because Gov. Tim Walz no longer has the same emergency authority he did during earlier stages of the pandemic, decisions will be left to school boards and administrators, which means there could be considerable variety in how districts continue with restrictions or revert to pre-pandemic routines.

"With the governor pulling back on his emergency powers, that those no longer exist, we have no role to play at this point in time in the decisions around things like masks or physical distancing," Mueller said. "Those are going to be local decisions."

Scott Croonquist, executive director of the Association of Metropolitan School Districts, said school leaders are paying close attention to the latest news and guidance on the virus from state and national health experts.

The latest guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, updated earlier this month, says anyone over the age of 2 who is not vaccinated should wear a mask inside school buildings, and that schools should consider requiring everyone to wear a mask in places with lower vaccination rates.

This week, the American Academy of Pediatrics said all students and teachers should wear masks in school, regardless of whether they have been vaccinated, because sorting out who has and hasn't been vaccinated and operating under separate rules is too difficult.

COVID-19 vaccines are still unavailable for children under 12, though health officials have said vaccine manufacturers are expected to release their study results and potentially seek approval for younger kids as soon as this fall.

But with virus cases on the rise, and strong feelings on all sides about masking and vaccination, Croonquist said it's still hard to know exactly how many families might opt in or out of in-person schooling — or decide where they'll attend school — this fall.

He said school boards and administrators will again be wrestling with hard decisions about public health and inevitably won't be able to please everyone.

"Ultimately, it will be up to families to make decisions," he said.

Erin Golden • 612-673-4790