Before the pandemic, thousands of Minneapolis elementary and middle school students attended after-school programs designed to help them catch up to their peers in math and reading. For an hour or two after regular classes, the students would complete hands-on projects meant to supplement their classroom learning.

This year, however, that programming has to come through a screen. And the virtual option is proving far less popular.

There are fewer than 700 students in kindergarten through eighth grade enrolled in the free after-school classes this year. Last year, by comparison, there were about 6,500 students enrolled by mid-January.

Such a decline could mean a future drop in state funding for the programs, which are considered targeted services and primarily aimed at students struggling in school.

"We know that this is a time where families have other needs and maybe they think this is just more time spent on the computer, but it is more than that," said Daren Johnson, the director of extended learning for Minneapolis schools.

Once a student has enrolled in a after-school class, they can pick up a kit of materials to use for the hands-on projects.

"These classes are still project-based," Johnson said. "[Students] are using their hands, connecting what they're learning during the day and putting it into motion."

Registration is currently open for the spring semester courses, which run from Jan. 11 through April 1.

Many of the courses focused on STEM (science, technology engineering and math) topics are open to all students, not just those who are struggling.

In addition to programs like robotics, roller coaster science, architectural design, photography and journalism, this year's offerings include cultural immersion courses like Latin American studies and an introduction to Hmong language and history. Each of the classes run from one to two hours twice a week.

Though enrollment numbers are down, Johnson said the dropout rate has stayed low. Once students start the classes, they are attending and staying interested.

"We have amazing teachers step forward to create these projects that students are really enjoying," Johnson said.

And just like the in-person after school programs, the virtual ones still provide time for students to connect with their teachers. "They can leave their microphone on and talk as they work, which can help meet those social-emotional needs as well," Johnson said.

The district is continuing to encourage families to sign up and has sent out multiple texts, e-mails and even created a radio spot to promote the classes. Parents can see the list of classes and register online at the school district's website.

"Increased enrollment means increased opportunity for our students," Johnson said. "We'd love to see more students benefit."

Mara Klecker • 612-673-4440