St. Paul schools eyeing online option for all students

Online learning will be an option again this fall for all students in St. Paul schools.

The school board agreed Tuesday to immediately expand a new online school initially being designed for high schoolers to include students from kindergarten through grade 12.

The district has cited increasing demand in a shifting landscape that has seen coronavirus cases rising and the state Department of Education loosening requirements for districts and charters to continue offering distance learning.

“Many feel it’s not safe to come back with COVID-19,” Superintendent Joe Gothard told board members.

The school board also signed off Tuesday on a plan outlined a week ago calling for students, staff members and visitors to wear masks in all district buildings beginning Wednesday.

District spokesman Kevin Burns said Tuesday that about 60 high school students had enrolled in the new SPPS Online School. Families now wishing to enroll elementary and middle school students can do so beginning Wednesday on the district’s website at spps.org.

St. Paul already secured state approval for the school, which Gothard said will deliver a different online experience than that offered to students earlier in the pandemic.

The school has its own principal, Jeffrey Bush. The district has said it hopes to staff the school with teachers who want the opportunity to teach online and not just avoid teaching in-person in their respective buildings.

“We really want to find the right match,” Gothard said.

Board Member Zuki Ellis has questioned how a quick expansion could affect school staffing shortages.

Gothard said staffing is “certainly a concern,” but he did not envision the online program being “a big driver in the shortage — it’s just a shortage overall,” he said.

As of last Thursday, the district needed to fill 103 full-time-equivalent teaching positions, about double the number of vacancies it reported when it headed into the 2019-20 school year, according to board documents.

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