LEANDER, Texas (KXAN) — The Leander Independent School District Board of Trustees signed off on a plan to implement a 100% remote virtual learning option for families who want it in the fall.
The district will use $2.8 million in federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) stimulus dollars in order to do so after Texas legislators failed to pass a guiding framework that give school districts the option while still receiving full state funding.
“Based on vaccine distribution, low COVID-19 transmission rates in classrooms, and guidance and rules set by TEA, we believe that the best opportunity for most students is to learn in-person with their teacher on our LISD campuses,” LISD district officials wrote. “In keeping with our mission to partner with families and create safe and supportive environments to nurture each student’s personal growth, we believe it is important to offer this remote learning option.”
A May survey revealed that 504 students from 356 families expressed a medical need requiring a remote learning option. While all 504 students may not end up committing to the required one-semester of virtual instruction, the results were telling-enough to allow the trustees to unanimously vote in favor of paying the required cost to implement a virtual plan.
Many other Central Texas school districts have abandoned any plan to offer a virtual option to families, most often citing the legislature’s failure to pass HB 1468 as the reason remote learning is no longer being considered.
How other Central Texas school districts are planning for fall
The Texas Education Agency reports there is no existing statutory framework to authorize remote instruction for the fall 2021 school year. The agency used its disaster authority to allow full funding for remote instruction during the 2020/2021 school year, but it cannot be utilized any further. In addition, TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s power, based on the state’s education code, was amended with the passage of HB 1525, which significantly limits any other options and leniency he can extend to school districts.
“As we plan our return to the on-campus experience our parents and students have come to expect from Round Rock ISD, we did, however, want to be able to provide a virtual option for a longer period of time for those students who may need it due to health concerns,” Round Rock ISD acting superintendent Dr. Daniel Presley wrote. “Unfortunately, a bill (HB 1468) in the Texas Legislature making that option possible for Round Rock ISD failed to pass this Legislative Session, which ended on Monday, May 31. Therefore the District will not be able to offer a virtual learning platform next school year.”
“In Hays CISD we are not offering a virtual option for next school year because it is not funded,” said Hays CISD spokesman Tim Savoy. “If anything changes over the summer with a special legislative session or a directive from the Texas Education Agency, we’d take another look at our plans.”
Georgetown and Eanes ISD also said they were no longer considering remote learning for students. Pflugerville ISD’s communication specialist Tamara Spence said a final decision would come mid-July after continuing to communicate with TEA Commissioner Mike Morath’s office.
In the Austin Independent School District, the Chief of Schools said the option was briefly considered, but abandoned. District leaders decided any potential plan wouldn’t serve enough students to justify the cost. AISD is expected to pocket more than $200 million in federal stimulus dollars, but hasn’t said yet how it plans to allocate it.
“Our students are in desperate need of opportunities to learn and engage and we recognize that a lot of that good work is happening in the classroom, face-to-face,” AISD Chief of Schools Dr. Anthony Mays said. “We followed suit, along with several other districts in terms of reopening our campuses, to make sure our students have the learning opportunities that we know yield better results.”
Some Austin ISD teachers are not pleased with the perceived lack of collaboration with community stakeholders, particularly as it relates to large-scale decisions.
Bronwyn Merritt, a 5th grade teacher at Brentwood Elementary, sent a letter to Dr. Mays and Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde, asking the district to fight back against state mandates and restrictions. She implored the leaders to exert influence and be a leader in supporting teachers, staff and families.
“We do have a voice and value as a district and a lot of power and pull. We can be on the right side of history here,” Merritt wrote.
Merritt suggested the district seek collaboration, particularly with the teachers who are working in the classrooms daily. In particular, she’s worried about what the fall looks like with 100% in-person attendance, specifically at her Brentwood campus, where all students will be working in portables until the reimagined campus is finished construction in 2022.
“I would have liked to see more discussion around that move to 100% in-person instead of getting an email in the summer saying virtual was off the table,” Merritt said. “I just really want to know that there is a place for every parent, every teacher and every student at the table, with the people who are making these massive decisions that affect us all.”