by ALEXANDRA RETTER
Winona Area Public Schools (WAPS) is one step closer to being a state-approved online learning provider. The move would allow the district to serve its students and families who prefer distance learning even as most students are back in the classroom.. The action would also potentially enable WAPS to bring in students from other parts of the state at a time of decreased enrollment. However, questions remain about how soon the district could implement online learning.
WAPS has submitted an application to the Minnesota Department of Education (MDE) to be an online learning provider, Teaching and Learning Director Karla Winter said at the School Board’s July 15 meeting. Students from throughout Minnesota could take online classes through the district, which could possibly increase enrollment. MDE has 90 days to review the application, meaning it is unlikely the state agency would approve the district’s submission before school begins in September. MDE and the district will go through a process of MDE providing any feedback and WAPS putting any of those suggested changes in place before approval. The district does not yet have a sense of when it might hear about the turnaround time on the application from MDE, Superintendent Annette Freiheit said.
Initially, WAPS teachers won’t be involved with the district’s online learning. Winter said the district’s plan for providing online learning includes using the teachers and curriculum from an existing online learning service, Edgenuity, for one year. In the following year, the district would hope to use Edgenuity’s curriculum but have WAPS teachers give the lessons on it. In the third year, WAPS would have a goal of implementing its own curriculum with its own teachers.
Currently, schools statewide plan on in-person learning for the fall. The state legislature did not agree to allow schools to provide distance learning in the 2021-2022 school year without an official green light from MDE.
The submission also followed some slight pressure from several School Board members. School Board Chair Nancy Denzer voiced concerns at the June 17 board meeting about the application not yet being submitted, as some other area schools are now approved online learning providers. Several of those schools are based in Albert Lea, Wabasha, Houston and Owatonna, Minn., according to MDE. She and School Board member Karl Sonneman also said they would have liked the district to have online learning in place for the fall semester, with Denzer noting that she felt the district would lose students without providing online learning. District administrators had initially told the board in March of this year that they would like to submit an application, with an apparent goal of being an online learning provider by this fall.
Sonneman asked at the School Board’s July meeting what the district’s plan would be for students who want to be in distance learning in the upcoming school year, if it has not received approval from MDE at that time, and whether WAPS had something to offer those students. “No, because we cannot offer distance learning,” Freiheit said. “That wasn’t approved through the legislature.”
Sonneman encouraged the district to look for another plan and said one idea was collaborating with other Big 9 schools to assure that they don’t retain any WAPS students that enroll in their online programming. “I just feel if we let it go, we’re going to lose people,” Sonneman said.