The coronavirus pandemic has drastically changed day-to-day life including how students are receiving their education.

Schools have shifted between in-person and online learning throughout the academic year. This has prompted the Prior Lake-Savage Area School District to develop a K-12 online learning program to offer to students and families even after students have returned to classrooms for good.

During a Dec. 14 PLSAS Board of Education work session, Assistant Superintendent Jeff Holmberg updated the board on the plans to pursue such a program.

“Certainly one of the things the pandemic has brought to us is online learning,” he said. “While we’re finding that it’s not the desired experience for every child, we are getting feedback from parents that this is something they might like to see the district look to provide post the pandemic and when we have families coming back.”

Before the start of the 2020-21 school year, the district had to prepare to move between three learning models — in-person, hybrid and distance.

Per state requirements, a completely online learning experience had to be created for families who wished to pursue distance learning full-time due to the coronavirus.

While in the hybrid model, PLSAS elementary students attend the Distance Learning Academy, which operates almost as a separate school, explained Assistant Superintendent Jeff Holmberg. Students are grouped by grade level and have their own team of teachers.

Secondary students enrolled in distance learning tune into live classrooms where other students are receiving in-person instruction.

“We did that for a couple reasons, probably the most important reason was, it allowed students the ability to choose and remain in those classes and have course options for them to take,” Holmberg said.

Going onlineBut will the K-12 online learning program follow the same format as last year? That’s what the district is trying to figure out right now.

On Dec. 18, PLSAS took the first step in the process by submitting a letter of intent to become an online provider to the state.

“Then from that point the Minnesota Department of Education provides us the application for us to fill out and that’s how we start to design the type of experience we want for students,” Holmberg said.

The state requires the district to be broken into grade bands of K-2, 3-5, 6-8 and 9-12.

As of now, the district believes the online program for K-2 and 3-5 students would be identical to the current Distance Learning Academy for elementary students.

For 6-8 and 9-12, the plan is to develop a supplemental online program, Holmberg said.

“That’s something we need to spend a little bit more time developing,” he said. “What we’ve learned is that it’s very difficult for our secondary teachers to be teaching kids in-person and then also simultaneously engaging and teaching students that are tuning in to the class and so we have to think of a better way of doing that.”

One idea being explored by staff is offering fully online courses at the secondary level. For example, an educator may teach a biology course and have multiple in-person sections and then one section only for online students, he said.

The details still need to be fleshed out, but the feedback from students, teachers and stakeholders over the last eight months has and will continue to guide the process, he added.

“We want to make sure that this is something that we continue to build on the success that we’ve had, but we also want to continue to listen to our students, listen to our teachers so that as we continue to develop programs like this that we continue to offer high quality programs and continue to improve on the lessons learned,” Holmberg said.

Developing an online program is an action that may similarly be taken by districts as the pandemic continues and some find online learning efficient for their family, he said.

For PLSAS, the benefits of such a program are two-fold. An online program provides another option to meet the needs of stakeholders and it will also help with student retention.

“We are fully hoping and intending that we can be back in person next fall,” Superintendent Dr. Teri Staloch said during the Dec. 14 study session. “We also don’t know exactly what it is that our families are going to want and we want to be sure that our resident families have an option so that we don’t lose our resident families to other districts who are online providers. Our intent is to get kids back and to get our kids back in-person but to also be prepared to be responsive to the needs of families moving forward, which is why we’re looking into this and doing this right now.”

Shifting staff, leveraging learning tools the district already possesses, identifying a budget source and creating a sustainable program, are all a part of the ongoing work into developing the online program.

Come the new year, the district will be in a place “where the rubber hits the road,” Holmberg said, as student registration will begin and they’d like to have the online program as an option for the 2021-22 academic year.