During a board meeting in February, Stillwater Area Public Schools superintendent Malinda Lansfeldt said some learners thrived while learning exclusively online and the district would pursue a pre-enrollment study to gauge interest in continuing such a program for the 2021-22 school year.
After the completion of that study, Assistant superintendent Jennifer Cherry said at the board’s latest meeting on March 11 the district found it would not be feasible because of the investment it would take — and it found less interest than it had estimated during an initial survey in the fall.
“At this time it is very cost prohibitive for us to be able to offer a full online learning program for next year,” Cherry said. “In lieu of an online learning program, what we will intend to do is to reach out to all of our interested families … to determine a plan for moving forward to best meet the needs of those students.”
The total program would cost more than $1 million per year, and the district would also need to invest in teachers and support staff, technology, online subscriptions, professional development and training.
In the district’s pre-registration survey, the district found that 177 students across all grades would be interested in online learning for next year. The breakdown between grade levels was 75 elementary school students, 50 middle school students and 52 high school students who were truly interested in the online learning option for next year.
“Those 177 students are scattered across all of our grades K-12,” Cherry said. “If we look across all of those grades: In each one of those grades they’re less than a class size. So this gave us a very different picture of the number of students that would be looking at online learning, and what we might do as a district to serve these families.”
In the district’s initial broader study, there were 400 students interested in online learning.
Rachel Larson, director of learning, described to the board the next steps needed moving forward.
“One of the pieces that we realized is that we do have 177 students who would like this option,” Larson said.
The district will be reaching out to see why the families are interested in the online learning option.
Larson asked if those families are interested because of concerns about contracting COVID-19 during the next school year — or is it about having a flexible schedule.
“Or is it just about wanting the continued online learning experience,” Larson said. “So although we are not going to be developing a system-wide online learning program, what we are going to continue to is work with the (Minnesota Department of Education) for certification to offer supplemental options at the high school level.”
The district plans to start this process within the next month. Certain teachers will make their lessons available online.
“So it’s a hybrid type of model for online learning options that provide flexibility,” Larson said.
Board member Tina Riehle asked if the district was concerned about losing the 177 students who were interested in the online-only learning option to another district providing an eLearning option.
“Great question director Riehle and absolutely we are,” Cherry said. “We have tried to be very creative in finding solutions to how to serve those student’s needs.”
Board Member Katie Hockert asked if the Stillwater district has done any research on what neighboring districts are doing that may pull students away from the SAPS district.
“When we’re looking at district’s that are comparable to use, they’re in the same situation we are,” Larson said. “They’re looking at their numbers.”
At online academies students often start by taking supplemental classes with an online component, which is what the Stillwater district is planning on mimicking.
Board member Matt Onken said he was upset that schools were returning back to normal instead of using what they learned during the pandemic. He noted that applied to all school districts across the state, not just Stillwater.
“I was really hoping that what we’ve gone through in the last year that there would be some creative changes going forward in all of education,” Onken said. “I would love to see it if we went to more of a four-day in-person week.”
Since the pandemic began, Stillwater learners have been moving between learning online, learning in a hybrid model while alternating in-person and online instruction day before returning to in-person learning in 2021.
Onken envisions taking the lessons learned from those learning models and having a fourt-day week in persons and using the fifth day for supplemental work — or a day where students could take an elective course.
“I’m worried we’re going to go back to the same old same old when we’ve got some opportunities to do some of these creative things,” Onken said. “Unfortunately, there’s always that dollar sign attached to them.”