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Emily Albrecht, 6th grade English Teacher at Hidden Oaks Middle School, teaches at a distance. The district is working to develop an online learning program as an option for students and families post-pandemic.

Envisioning a post-pandemic world for Minnesota school districts doesn't necessarily mean an end to virtual learning. 

Across the state, districts are preparing to step into the world of online learning permanently with full-time offerings for kindergarten through twelfth-grade grade students.

But first, districts need approval from the Minnesota Department of Education to be formally recognized as a Minnesota-approved online learning (OLL) provider. 

Jeff Plaman, a digital and online learning specialist with MDE, is tasked with reviewing those applications. 

"We aren't at the peak yet," Plaman said in an interview this month. "We have ten applications we are reviewing right now, but we know we have 20 or 30 more coming." 

Before the pandemic, the online learning team at MDE typically reviewed two or three applications per year. 

In the southwest metro, both the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District and the Prior Lake-Savage District will have applications among this year's sorting pile. 

"Before it was a big unknown to a lot of people," Plaman said about the pandemic's impact on online learning. 

Now, there's an entire workforce with online education experience, he said. 

Currently, 38 online learning providers are up and running in Minnesota and the number is on-track to double by next year. 

For local district leaders, envisioning the future of online learning means distinguishing which challenges were caused by the pandemic rather than virtual learning itself. 

Local district officials say creating an online learning program isn't about replicating what's been done this year in the distancing learning model. 

In the Burnsville-Eagan-Savage District, officials say excelling in the virtual learning environment could be a way to slow or reverse the district's declining enrollment trends, which ultimately led to three school closures last year.

District officials plan to utilize existing staff to launch online learning with hopes of gaining new students from all corners of the state. 

Imina Oftedahl, the district's director of curriculum and instruction, told board members this month about a plan to translate the district's college and career Pathways learning model to online learning, beginning with curriculum tracks offered in arts, communications and information and technology. 

However, not all the virtual learning programs expected to launch next year will compete for students from across Minnesota. 

Plaman estimates more than half of the districts currently in the application process are only looking to offer online learning to in-district students.

Houston Public Schools' online program, Minnesota Virtual Academy, is one of the main players in the state's existing online learning landscape. 

Minnesota Connections Academy is the largest by enrollment. 

Plaman said virtual school offerings have been around for Minnesota students since the 1990s. In the late-2000s, a Minnesota law known as the Online Learning Options Act formalized the process for approving and operating public online schools. 

The legislation sparked a wave of applications, according to Plaman, but many districts eventually let their programs lapse and close. 

"It's kind of gone in cycles, but there's been a core of a few online learning schools that are particularly experienced," he said. 

This year's wave of applications will bring more large metro districts into the game, Plaman said.

The state is also seeing non-metro districts take up interest, such as those in areas such as St. Cloud, Mankato, Brainerd and Austin. 

Some metro-area districts, such as Elk River and Lakeville, already have online learning programs that pre-date the pandemic. 

There's a variety of paths leading students to choose online learning, Plaman said. 

Students pursuing athletics or arts, or students needing to accommodate work or caretaking responsibilities are a few common examples.

Online school is also commonly chosen for students with chronic illness who'd otherwise be frequently absent from school, or students who move around often. 

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