The St. Paul school board on Wednesday signed off on plans for a virtual start to the 2020-21 school year.

The state's second-largest district joins a strong majority of urban school systems in choosing to open the year with distance learning.

A Star Tribune review of 67 member districts of the Council of the Great City Schools showed that 47 had elected to stick with remote learning, seven will make full in-person instruction available and nine are offering a hybrid of the two, according to data compiled by the publication Education Week. Four districts are undecided.

St. Paul and Minneapolis both are part of the Great City Schools group, as are Milwaukee and Chicago, which are going remote only, and Des Moines, which will start the school year with a hybrid plan.

Under guidance issued last week by Gov. Tim Walz, St. Paul could have started with in-person instruction for elementary students and a hybrid for middle and high school students. But Superintendent Joe Gothard, citing the uncertainty of enrollment numbers and how buildings will be staffed and used, said that he did not believe the district was ready to reopen safely and efficiently.

"This isn't a decision I want to make," he told board members Wednesday about the distance learning move. "To say that I don't take it lightly is an understatement. This is to make sure we can (reopen) safely."

In a four-hour-plus presentation, Gothard and his administrative team explained the rationale for the recommendation and gave a rundown of various supports that are to be provided to students and families under what the district has dubbed Distance Learning 2.0.

Academic support centers will be set up in each of the district's geographic zones to provide in-person support to students struggling with coursework, social-emotional needs and distance-learning technical concerns.

Gothard also is setting aside Sept. 25 and Oct. 14 as pivotal dates to determine whether the district is ready to move to a hybrid option.

A Sept. 25 decision would be tied to a potential reopening on Oct. 19 following the state's "MEA Break," while an Oct. 14 decision could pave the way to reopening on Nov. 16 — the start of the district's second quarter.

The district needs plenty of lead time, he said, to work through challenges related to in-person instruction.

In the middle schools and high schools, for example, only one-quarter of classrooms could accommodate students with proper social distancing. That, officials say, creates scheduling, staffing and furniture implications.

Gothard said pressures at the elementary level also could require the hiring of an additional 1,200 staff members for full in-person instruction and 300 to 400 if a hybrid plan were adopted.

Board Member Steve Marchese said district leaders should be specific about the data points that could trigger a move to reopen schools, not just for transparency's sake but also so people can advocate for funding needed to make it happen.

"We shouldn't do this flying blind," he said.

Marchese voted against the plan, approved 5-1, after trying unsuccessfully to add an in-person pilot program for special-education students and English language learners.

Anthony Lonetree • 612-673-4109