Most kids are back in school full-time, but interest in online learning remains high — with waiting lists reported in each of the state's four largest school districts.
Anoka-Hennepin Virtual Academy stopped taking applications before the school year began, and St. Paul officials have scrambled to pull in more teachers to reduce the waitlists for its online school.
"Demand has surpassed my expectations," said St. Paul Public Schools Superintendent Joe Gothard.
Friday marked a deadline for when St. Paul students who stayed home with excused absences would learn if they landed a late online opening. A mom whose third-grader was on a waiting list that had climbed from about 45 kids two weeks ago to nearly 90 this week received the good news about 9 a.m. Friday.
"We are excited for your student to begin their educational journey in the SPPS Online School," said an e-mail from the state's second-largest district. The mom, who asked not to be identified because her job could put her child's safety at risk, had considered a charter school as a fallback option.
Uncertainties and risks associated with COVID-19 remain a major driver in parent and student interest in online learning. Unlike last school year, however, when students worked with teachers who shifted with them from virtual to in-person formats, the stand-alone online schools have staffs dedicated to that purpose — with enrollment caps in place.
As of Friday, Minneapolis Public Schools had 788 kids enrolled in its MPS Online School and a waiting list of 166 students, district spokeswoman Julie Schultz Brown said. Rosemount-Apple Valley-Eagan, the state's fourth-largest district, has 29 kids on its waiting list and 601 students enrolled — about 2% of the district's total enrollment, spokesman Tony Taschner said.
Anoka-Hennepin, the state's largest district, reported enrollment of 949 students in its virtual academy and about 50 on the waiting list. Elementary enrollment jumped from 97 kids in mid-August to 430 students after the district changed its masking rules and dropped a previous requirement that families commit to a full year online, spokesman Jim Skelly said.
Now, students can move to in-person or to the virtual academy with each trimester change, if space allows.
Skelly said because districts had time to develop their online schools, and have hired teachers to work specifically with those students, "the programs are much better positioned for success than last year's distance learning."
Anoka-Hennepin says it's willing to work with high schoolers on possible online options now that the school year has begun, but it is sticking with its current caps for the elementary and middle school programs.
On opening day of the new school year in St. Paul, Gothard said he was looking to add seats to its online school, which at the time had about 1,000 students and another 500 on the waiting list.
The district decided on Aug. 17 to expand the online school to grades kindergarten through eight. That gave parents about a three-week window to apply, and as they began to encounter waiting lists, some expressed frustration with not knowing how likely it was their kids could land a late slot.
At a school board meeting on Tuesday, Gothard said he wanted to see how many kids showed up in person to determine what kinds of moves could be made to shift teachers — primarily those at the elementary level — to the online school. But he added, as he's done previously, that he also wanted teachers who were committed to the virtual model.
On Friday, the online school's final count stood at more than 1,500 students with 300 on the waiting list.
Lynda Thurstin, a parent on the city's North End, learned Thursday that her kindergartner, Bonita, who was 15th on her waitlist, scored a spot, but her seventh-grader Amore, who was 40th, apparently had not.
Asked what she planned to do about her daughters' school options, she said she would have to think about it.