District 191 plans permanent Virtual Academy

New ‘post-pandemic’ model planned for next year

The next generation of distance learning in School District 191 won’t be the model rushed into place last March or even the improved 2.0 version rolled out in September.

Next school year the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage district plans to launch a permanent Virtual Academy that will expand choice for district families and perhaps entice new ones.

“The evolution of distance learning has prepared us for a permanent online school,” Director of Technology Rachel Gorton told the School Board in a Jan. 14 workshop. The board will vote Jan. 28 on the district’s application for state approval to become an online education provider.

As in-person, hybrid and online learning models have shifted in response to COVID-19 case numbers, the state required all districts this year to offer a full-time online option.

As of Jan. 11, 40.6 percent of District 191 high school students and 40.3 percent of middle school students were enrolled in the One91 Virtual Academy. Secondary online enrollment showed a net gain of 1.5 percent from the first semester of 2020-21 to the second.

At the elementary level, 32.4 percent of students were enrolled in the academy, a net enrollment loss of 3.9 percent as 125 students opted instead for the hybrid model. Full in-person learning for grades kindergarten through five will soon resume.

Online learning has been positive for many students, not all, Gorton said. The pandemic has given the district a better look at some families’ housing and food insecurity and lack of internet connections, she said.

But online learning has also fostered creativity and a “spirit of possibility,” and district discussions about becoming an online education provider predated the pandemic, Gorton said.

“Our online school will be designed for a post-pandemic world,” she said.

Building on the current Virtual Academy, that means daily interaction with a licensed teacher across a “full complement of courses,” a district report said. Each virtual learning day will include at least 120 minutes of “synchronous” instruction and activities (live class meetings). A range of supports for advanced learners to special education students will be available, and work will be assessed through districtwide benchmarks and assessments.

“Students will have additional access to their teachers,” the report said.

The school day will be fully online at the elementary and middle school levels. At the high school level, students will be able to choose between full online learning or one or more “supplemental” online courses.

The full complement of the district’s learning pathways for elementary and middle school will be part of the program. At the high school level, one of the four college and career pathways categories — Arts, Global Communications and Information Systems — is planned. Other pathways, some online only, could follow, Gorton indicated.

Virtual class sizes this year have been “far higher than district norms in some grades,” but under the permanent academy will be comparable to district class-size ratios, she said.

“We’re not looking to re-create mega classes online,” Gorton said.

No new positions will be added, which is possible because of the district’s declining enrollment, she said. All teachers will be district employees.

“Most of it’s really going to be aligned to the work that we’re already doing,” Gorton said.

By law, the academy will be open to only Minnesota students. Academy students living in the district can participate in district sports and activities.

A Virtual Academy advisory committee with parents, students and teachers is planned.

Board Chair Eric Miller said the academy could be a “differentiator” for the district — perhaps the only way to possibly get enrollment growing again.

Board Member Anna Werb, whose children are in the Virtual Academy this year, said music, art and physical education are “somewhat difficult to administer virtually.”

“I just don’t feel like you’re getting the full experience with those classes virtually,” Werb said.

Such details are still in the planning stage, Gorton said.

Board Member Abagail Alt asked if the high school career technical education pathway could be added. It’s been discussed, Gorton said, adding that the goal is not necessarily to replicate every offering of the physical high school.

Online learning “comes with isolation for some families and students,” Board Member Suad “Sue” Said said.

“How easy and accessible is it for that family to reach out for help?” she asked.

The academy will strive to meet social-emotional needs, Gorton said, noting that a section of the state application to become an online learning provider is devoted entirely to support services.

The district still offers therapy through its contract with Headway Emotional Health Services, she noted.

Virtual therapy “has been a good option for many kids, but also they haven’t taken away the option of meeting in person,” Gorton said.

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