Canceled online classes push some Austin families to virtual schools
Sarah Gallardo’s 9-year-old son Raymond struggled at school long before the coronavirus pandemic.
The frustration of jumping from activity to activity when he was not ready or of being bored amidst rigid class schedules overwhelmed him with his attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
“He would tear up his paper. His frustration would lead to anger,” Gallardo said.
Then the coronavirus pandemic forced its classes at Voigt Elementary School in the Round Rock District to go online. Many students and families struggled with the transition and were eager to return to class, including Gallardo’s son Benjamin, 6.
Raymond, meanwhile, thrived on learning from a distance and growing at his own pace.
“It was a godsend,” said Gallardo. “It was nothing less than an absolute miracle for us.”
But earlier this month, the Round Rock School District was among many school districts in Texas to cancel online classes for the fall after the failure of legislation that would have funded local learning programs at distance.
“Therefore, the district will not be able to offer a virtual learning platform next year,” Acting Superintendent Daniel Presley said in a message to parents.
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He said the district had hoped to “provide a virtual option for a longer period of time for students who may need it due to health concerns, especially since vaccines for children under 12 are unlikely to be available. available only later in the fall. “
Gallardo said her heart sank when she read the district announcement.
The move has left families like his scrambling and could push some students into virtual schools and away from traditional school districts, which are already struggling to return to pre-pandemic enrollment levels.
Virtual learning options
Gallardo applied to enroll Raymond in Texas Connections Academy, a Houston-based public virtual school open to students statewide.
It is one of seven state-run schools Texas Virtual School Network, which operated full-time distance learning programs before the pandemic.
At the onset of the pandemic, Texas Education Commissioner Mike Morath issued waivers to allow local school districts to receive attendance-based funding to run their own distance learning programs.
But new legislation limits the commissioner’s power to adjust attendance requirements to one school year after a “disaster” or disaster. Bill 1525 means that extending the waiver is no longer an option, according to TEA officials.
House Bill 1468 allegedly allowed local public schools to count students in distance learning programs as part of fundraising enrollments, but he became a victim of House Democrats walkout killing a ballot bill Republican by the midnight deadline to pass a law.
Gov. Greg Abbott could revive the legislation in a special session he has vowed to convene this summer to focus on overhauling the state’s election laws.
But the timing could prove difficult for school districts, and Abbott has championed the return to normalcy, ending mask rules in schools.
“Some of the governor’s more recent orders indicate that, you know, the state is expected to be reopened in all respects, including, of course, for public education,” Joy Baskin said. , director of legal services for the Texas Association of School. Boards.
Yet vaccines are not yet available for children under 12, leaving some parents reluctant to send their children back to class.
Some North Texas School Districts plans to continue offering distance learning options by drawing on their own funds, but the costs could outweigh the interest in other districts.
“For the record, what I’m hearing is that it’s not a huge number of families that would continue to want a full-time virtual option,” Baskin said. “But I think the districts that have put a tremendous amount of energy into developing the technology and pedagogical know-how to effectively deliver virtual education, I think they will be sorry to lose momentum.”
School districts could also look to adjust their schedules to offer limited distance learning such as “Virtual Fridays,” she said.
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Virtual school success
Gallardo is not yet ready for Raymond to return to school in person, although she and her husband must return to work.
They hope to keep him in the virtual school with the help of Gallardo’s mother, Carol Toman, who helped guide Raymond through the online classes as a learning coach.
Raymond would log into the online course, but could take a break or work in advance on his homework. His grandmother also noticed a transformation in him.
“He was a sad little boy and he didn’t have much to say; he didn’t want to talk after school,” Toman said of Raymond before virtual school.
“I hope we can also take him virtual for next year as well because he’s not the kind of kid who can sit quietly in a classroom while the teacher reviews. the same subject for the next 20 minutes he’s already had, “she said.
Texas Connections Academy in Houston accepts students on a first come, first served basis, said Lea Ann Lockard, executive director and founding director.
The virtual school started with 60 students in 2009, Lockard said. It has seen its enrollment grow from around 6,000 students before the pandemic to around 8,500, with expectations to enroll 10,000 in the coming year, she said.
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“There are a good number of families who are looking for this opportunity because they have had experience in their local school district with virtual schooling and they see that it can work for them,” she said. “But they also sense some of the inconsistencies that can arise in a district when they are just not fully geared towards providing a full-time online school.”
Interest has largely come from families with elementary school students, but she said she may see a spike in interest among high school students as more districts end virtual options.