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Missouri schools preparing for students taking online classes

Illustration by Rici Hoffarth | St. Louis Public Radio
Missouri is expanding online learning opportunities to K-12 public school students starting in January.

Virtual schooling is coming to public K-12 education in Missouri next month.

While districts expect high school students to be the first to enroll, the program allows for students as young as first grade to take classes online.

Public school districts across the state are working under a short timeframe to comply with the new Missouri Course Access Program, known as MOCAP, which was adopted into law over the summer and goes into effect in January.

District officials aren’t quite sure how it will be met by students.

“It could be that a student will choose to take all of their classes online, or maybe a couple, or just one. It doesn’t have to be any one way,” said Webster Groves Assistant Superintendent for Learning Kristin Denbow.

She likened what she and colleagues are doing to building an airplane while flying it.

Online course program backers say it will greatly expand course offerings and educational opportunities to students in small or rural school systems where there are few Advanced Placement or foreign language courses.

Previously, only a small group of students in Missouri could study online for free, such as those the state considers medically fragile, which the state covered the tuition of.

But district officials also have concerns about unintended consequences.

“When this first came through, I got very nervous about a lot of things,” said Windsor School District Assistant Superintendent Jeff Buscher.

The law could allow children to earn a diploma from the Jefferson County district without ever stepping into one of its school buildings, he said.

If enough students stop coming to school, that could reduce the number of teachers needed.

“If this would grow and grow, what you’re potentially impacting the most is the number of staff you have to maintain,” Buscher said.

Windsor said MOCAP will increase the learning opportunities for students too.

“You’re not going to meet the need of every kid,” he said. “So being able to allow them that opportunity and you provide for that, only strengthens the student.”

Districts will receive nearly full per-pupil funding for students enrolled in virtual classes but will have to pay the cost for the student to take an online course, expected to be about $250 per class, per semester, with a cap of $437.

Public school advocates have also expressed concern about MOCAP opening a door to online charter schools, which typically perform lower academically than brick-and-mortar public and charters schools in states that allow them.

Students taking online courses will still have to take state performance exams. Their scores will count toward their host district’s state rating, even if the student is never taught by a district educator.

Online education vendors provide courses presently mostly for high school levels only but are working to add middle school options soon and possibly also elementary-level classes.

While the law goes into effect in August, districts expect to see enrollment in online courses to start in earnest for the 2019-2020 school year.

Clarifications: This story has been updated with information regardings costs and timelines of the program.

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @rpatrickdelaney

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