School districts around Anoka County are looking to offer virtual learning options after this school year.

The Anoka-Hennepin School District is expanding its virtual learning program next school year, after offering online learning for about five years, according to Joel VerDuin, the district’s chief technology and information officer.

The district currently offers two types of online schooling. One is specifically for those who’ve been expelled from school, and is intended to prevent them falling behind.

The other is called StepAhead Online, which is for high school students to take classes partially or fully online.

“We’ve had hundreds of students that run through that every year,” VerDuin said.

Next year the district will make the program available to all students, not just high schoolers.

For kindergarten through eighth grade, virtual learning will be offered only as a full-time program, but high school students can continue to take online classes part-time.

That’s because older students are more likely to have their own form of transportation to and from school compared to the younger grades, VerDuin said.

The district is looking to include more involvement from its teachers in the online programming, he said.

“Some of it has been self-paced coursework through software, and we’re trying to minimize that to the degree that we can and rely more on our own teachers and more on our own curriculum,” VerDuin said.

He expects online learning enrollment to increase this year, following a pre-pandemic trend.

Some families have reached out to the district to talk about their student’s success in virtual schooling during the pandemic, VerDuin said.

“And without the pandemic, they may not have had sort of a trial run for virtual learning,” he said.

Online learning differs from in-person classes in more than location, VerDuin said.

It can be better for students when it comes to scheduling, especially if there’s a class kids want to take that doesn’t fit in their current in-person school schedule.

Another change would be the lack of resources at home that may be available at school. For instance, a tech ed student likely wouldn’t have access to some of the same machines offered at school.

“They may not do it with the same equipment and they may not do it in the same way,” VerDuin said. “But they’re experimenting more with things they have around their own homes.”

Collaboration among students is built into the online courses, VerDuin said. In some way or another, students will acknowledge their classmates and get the group work experience they’d get in person.

The Columbia Heights School Board was introduced to the option for virtual learning April 13, to be approved April 27.

The district is looking to pursue becoming an online provider of education through the Minnesota Department of Education, Director of Community Education and Communications Kristen Stuenkel said. The Department of Education requires districts to be certified to offer online classes.

“We are pleased to respond to the needs of our parents and students, as well as to remain competitive as a school district that offers flexibility for learning, college and career preparation and independence to our students,” Stuenkel said.

Fridley Public Schools will give students the option of attending Fridley Online Academy during the 2021-2022 school year, according to Communications and Community Relations Director Jael McLemore.

“We know that children learn differently, and providing a choice of distance learning — in addition to regular on-site learning at school — will give families options, as well as ensuring that the learning and social-emotional needs of students are met regardless of the learning model they chose,” McLemore said.

Students in grades six through 12, including non-Fridley students, have the option of enrolling in the online academy.

Debra Parson, alternative education supervisor for St. Francis Area Schools, said her district has seen interest in online learning increase this school year, and she expects demand for the district’s Saints Online program to rise.

“We have seen an increase over the past year and with this being a stable option that has demonstrated success for our students, I see the enrollment going up quite a bit,” she said.

The district has offered online learning for six years for grades three through 12, and it hopes to add K-2 by the time fall rolls around, according to Parson.

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