AUSTIN (KXAN) — There are still questions left to be answered when it comes to the Austin Independent School District’s plan to offer virtual learning to kindergarten through sixth grade students this fall.
The two biggest, perhaps, is how much it will cost the district and just how many students the district will extend the invite to.
The former question largely defines the latter, considering the school district will need to pay for the program out of pocket. The State of Texas has decided it will not “hold harmless” and pay for any enrolled student the district doesn’t physically bring back into the classroom to learn in-person.
During the special board meeting on Monday night, AISD’s executive director of financial services said each student that is accepted to the virtual program will cost the district $4,500 per semester. Assuming vaccines will be approved for children younger than 12 by the winter and the district won’t need to extend the virtual option for a full year, that could cost AISD anywhere between $4.5 million to $45 million if 1,000 students to 10,000 students were accepted, respectively.
But financial pressures remain: Last month, the district’s board of trustees adopted a budget that included a $43 million deficit in the general fund. The district was planning on using Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief [ESSER] funds to supplant some of that deficit, plus pay for new programs and employee salaries.
Therefore, if the district is going to use federal funds to pay for the program, either programs and salaries will be cut or that deficit grows larger.
KXAN asked AISD how many students the district plans on accepting into the virtual program. A spokesperson refused to answer but said more details will be available on Friday.
The demand for virtual learning is high. Despite earlier surveys from the spring that revealed the majority of families were planning on sending their child back to school in-person in the fall, a recent uptick in COVID-19 cases has led to a change of heart.
The latest parent survey from AISD, based on feedback from 18,000 submissions, revealed 24% of elementary-aged families said “they don’t feel comfortable sending their child back, period.” Twenty-five percent of middle and high school families said the same.
Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde told the trustees she is watching and learning how other school districts are pursuing their virtual promises.
For example, in the Round Rock Independent School District, Elizalde said the district has a much healthier general fund. For that reason, RRISD administration will not need to use ESSER funds to pay for the virtual option, she said.
But in the Leander Independent School District, district officials say they only have a fixed amount of money allowed to fund this program, which keeps the district from expanding its capacity. Right now, LISD will cap its virtual learning program to 332 students. That’s less than 1% of the district’s 42,000 student population. There are currently 150 students on the waitlist.
“If we had a funding mechanism, we could consider increasing the capacity for this program, but we need the state to take action and give our families choice within our public schools,” a district spokesperson said.
It’s also important to note ESSER funds also have an important caveat which limits the district’s selection of which students are approved for virtual learning.
There is a “maintenance of equity” provision tied to the American Rescue Plan Act of 2021, which seeks to ensure that essential resources meet the needs of marginalized students, including “students from low-income families, students of color, English learners, students with disabilities and students experiencing homelessness.”
In essence, district’s may have to prioritize virtual program openings to marginalized groups, including students at Title 1 schools, over any other family who may be applying.