An online education boom followed the COVID-19 pandemic, as the number of schools offering virtual education in Minnesota nearly doubled from 37 in the fall of 2020 to 71 this year. But consolidation has started as the pandemic wanes — especially for online elementary and middle schools — limiting the options for families who want their children to continue learning online, and pushing more to look to other districts. That can be a challenge for families with disabled children who have thrived in online classrooms.
More students attend online schools than before the pandemic, but online elementary school classrooms aren’t as full as they were at COVID’s height. Dipping enrollment has led many districts that opened virtual schools to close programs. Edina, for example, has enough students to sustain an online high school program, but the school board voted January 9 to phase out the online elementary school after next year.
As smaller programs move toward closure, students who will stay online are sorting themselves into the remaining online schools, with longstanding virtual schools like Minnesota Virtual Academy and bigger programs like New Code Academy emerging as some of the dominant players.
“You need a critical mass of population in order to sustain a program,” said John Weisser of New Code Academy, and a critical mass of per-pupil funding from the state and sending districts. Weisser said New Code Academy costs about as much to operate as an in-person school.
Real-time instruction, like livestreamed lessons with the chance to ask questions and get answers, tends to be more appealing to a lot of families than schools that lean more on prerecorded videos and workbooks, Cullison said.
Bloomington seems to have enough students to sustain New Code Academy’s online program at all grade levels, Weisser said.
And as more districts pull back from online learning, he said, about half of New Code’s 200 elementary and middle school students are logging in from across Minnesota, from neighboring metro cities to as far away as St. Cloud.
Minnesota Virtual Academy — which is run by Houston Public Schools in Houston — is one of Minnesota’s oldest online schools, and has partnerships with districts that do not have their own online programs. About 1,800 students from across Minnesota attend, including about 450 in elementary school.
(Source: Star Tribune)