During Minnesota's monthslong, COVID-19-caused experiment with remote learning, much has been said and written about the social, emotional and academic downsides of online education. Though virtual learning isn't optimal for all students, a growing number want to do some or all of their classes remotely.
It's a trend worth supporting, recognizing that 21st-century school kids benefit from having a variety of educational choices. More should have the opportunity to select a learning model that fits their individual needs.
School leaders in St. Paul recently announced their intention to start a permanent online school to fill those kind of needs. Last week, the city's school board voted to seek state approval for a virtual school that would have its own principal, staff and programming. It would begin this fall by serving ninth- through 11th-graders, then add 12th-graders the following year. K-12 students also could take supplemental remote classes while attending school in person.
St. Paul is among the applications the state Education Department (MDE) has already or expects to receive this year. According to MDE officials, remote programs have been operating since the mid-1990s. Although some have come and gone, there currently are 38 state-approved online schools offering either full-time or supplemental course schedules. About 20,000 students are enrolled.
Jeff Plaman, MDE's online and digital learning specialist, told an editorial writer that during the past several years the department has received three or four such applications a year. However, this year there are more than 35 applications pending or expected. The interest has increased, he said, because more students and families have learned during COVID that remote learning works well for them.
Minnesota law requires MDE to "review and approve" schools that deliver online instruction. Only MDE-approved virtual schools receive state funding for students.
According to officials, reasons for choosing online learning are as varied as the students themselves. Some choose school via computer because of English language needs, medical conditions, special needs or because the in-person school environment wasn't right for them. Others need flexible learning schedules because of traveling for athletics, working to help support their families or doing internships. And some use the supplemental programs to take enrichment or credit recovery classes.
Minneapolis has had an online school for the past 15 years and has also experienced increased interest during the pandemic. The program currently has about 50 full-time and 245 part-time high school students. Like some of the other programs, it has a low graduation rate.
On that front, a Star Tribune analysis found that that 53% of online students statewide graduated within four years in 2019, compared with 91% of students in traditional schools and 63% in charter schools.
Minneapolis, like some other schools, does attract some high-achievers who need scheduling flexibility that online schools can provide. But they also enroll students who experience challenges such as homelessness, mental or physical problems, or special education needs who come to the programs behind on their studies.
Boosting graduation rates should be a focus, but it's better to have students engaged in education in some way rather than have them drop out. Online learning certainly has a place on the K-12 educational menus of the future, even as there is an understandable and necessary desire to return more Minnesota kids to their classrooms.