Nov. 20—Lincoln Public Schools officials are considering creating a dedicated virtual school next year that would require students to sign up for at least a semester and would have limited course offerings.

This week, the district sent a short survey to parents — including to as many home school parents as the district could find — to gauge their interest. As of Tuesday, more than 7,000 people had responded.

"This should come as a surprise to no one," Associate Superintendent Matt Larson told a school board committee Tuesday. "Parents feel strongly about remote learning and aren't afraid to tell us what they think."

Larson said it's one of several ideas the district is considering and stressed that officials have made no decisions.

The committee of three school board members had asked the district to do a quick survey to gauge interest in an idea both as an option if COVID-19 continues to be a concern next fall, and if it doesn't.

The survey asks parents whether their students would participate in remote learning if COVID-19 conditions are still a concern and if so, which would work best for them: the current practice of having remote learners virtually join a class with in-person learners; or having 100% remote learning in a dedicated space.

The survey also asks whether they'd be interested in a dedicated virtual school if COVID-19 were no longer a concern.

Many vocal critics of the district have advocated for 100% remote learning — or classes dedicated only to remote learners — in lieu of the current practice.

Board member Bob Rauner said a dedicated virtual school would be a good way to serve kids with special needs, those who are home-schooled and self-directed high school students. He said he was glad the survey asked about a virtual school beyond the pandemic, so it wouldn't be a referendum on how remote learning is now being done.

Larson said a virtual school would not work as well for the district's youngest students.

Having classroom teachers in charge of both in-person and remote learning has been a difficult challenge. Teachers must juggle new technology and trying to teach kids on Zoom and those sitting in front of them.

LPS officials say the advantages include allowing parents the flexibility of seamlessly switching students between in-person and remote classes, accommodating students who have to quarantine and ensuring remote students can take the full array of classes taught in school.

Roughly 20% of LPS students have chosen to learn remotely, though numbers had been declining slightly.

But there's been a sharp uptick since the Lincoln-Lancaster County Health Department's risk dial moved to red (severe) on Nov. 6, as positive cases and hospitalizations surged. Between Nov. 6 and Monday, the number of remote learners increased by 872, Larson said.

Prior to the pandemic some board members had expressed interest in increasing the online options for students. Before the pandemic, students could take online classes, which allowed them to go at their own pace but required that they come to a class where they were monitored by a teacher.

The survey will be open until Nov. 25.

Photos: Lincoln during the pandemic

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