The St. Paul School District is looking to start the 2020-21 school year with remote instruction despite concerns it could send enrollment into a deeper slide than already forecast.
But Superintendent Joe Gothard, whose call to begin the fall with distance learning is up for school board action Wednesday night, said the district and community are not at a point where in-person instruction can be pulled off safely and constructively.
Instead, he said, the district should aspire to a hybrid model that would have kids attending school two days a week and studying at home for three.
“We are going to fight, and we are going to work … to get back safely,” he told board members Saturday.
Gothard’s recommendation has been accompanied by vows that the district’s online offerings will be much improved, with no free passes given to kids who do not keep up.
But Board Member Steve Marchese said he fears the absence of hybrid instruction in the fall, especially for special-education students who need one-on-one support, could send families elsewhere.
The state’s second-largest district projected a 1,228-student loss when it set its 2020-21 budget in June.
Marchese also said distance learning fails to recognize differences in how people live and the ability of parents to help children with schooling at home.
“This is treating all of our families equally in terms of mode of instruction — and that is not equity,” Marchese said.
Officials say the district will set up academic support centers across the city to provide one to three hours of in-person help to struggling students — part of what Gothard is calling “District Learning 2.0 with incredible support.”
The plan to begin the year remotely is backed by Mayor Melvin Carter.
Under guidance issued last week by Gov. Tim Walz, St. Paul could offer in-person learning to elementary students and hybrid instruction to secondary students.
During Saturday’s meeting, Board Member John Brodrick also referenced a significant number of families whom he said were “very, very anxious” to move to hybrid or full in-person instruction, though he did not provide specifics.
Board materials prepared this week, however, show a growing percentage of parents surveyed saying they would enroll their children in full-time distance learning.
In July, 43% of parents said they would choose that option, compared with 25% in June, the report shows.
This year, the district is also giving families an opportunity to have children attend a yearlong SPPS Virtual Learning School.
Enrollees would remain in the program even if the district were to shift the remainder of its students from Distance Learning 2.0 to hybrid or full in-person instruction.
Officials have said Sept. 25 and Oct. 14 are key dates for determining whether the district is ready to move to hybrid instruction.
If the board signs off on distance learning at the start, officials say students and families can expect daily synchronous, or same-time, lessons and clear grading expectations — things the district could not provide when thrust into remote learning by emergency order this spring.
The community should know, Gothard said, that for now, distance learning is the “heartbeat” of instruction in almost every model until kids return to school full-time.