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Austin ISD Will Now Offer Virtual Learning This Fall

Third grade teacher Christina Tapia teaches a hybrid of in-person and virtual students from her classroom at Boone Elementary School in South Austin on Oct. 9.
Michael Minasi
Christina Tapia teaches a hybrid of in-person and virtual students from her third-grade classroom at Boone Elementary School last October.

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Some students in kindergarten through sixth grade will be able to do virtual learning this fall, the Austin Independent School District announced Monday.

The district previously had said it was offering only in-person classes because the state would not provide funding for virtual learning.

Many parents have been anxious about sending their unvaccinated kids to school in person as COVID cases and hospitalizations push the area into stage 4 of its risk-based precautions. An executive order from the governor also prohibits schools from requiring masks.

At a school board meeting Monday evening, district leaders said they cannot guarantee quite yet that every student who wants to do virtual learning will be able to. AISD sent out a survey Monday night and is asking all families to respond so it knows what the demand for virtual learning is.

The district hopes to have the funding to support everyone who wants to learn remotely, but if too many students are interested, it may have to select who gets to participate.

"Since we will not receive funding for students learning virtually, providing a virtual option will result in a loss of district revenue," said George Gogonas, AISD's interim chief financial officer. "At this time, it's hard to estimate the total loss which is dependent on the number of students and the length of time virtual is provided."

AISD officials didn’t announce the virtual option until now because they weren’t sure if the district could afford it. The Texas Education Agency has said it won’t fund virtual learning this year like it did last year. Any district that offers virtual learning has to pay for it on its own.

On Friday, Round Rock ISD announced it would offer virtual learning for kindergarten through sixth grade — students who aren’t old enough for a vaccine. Austin ISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said this announcement pushed her to try to figure out a virtual option in Austin, even though AISD has a much tighter budget than RRISD.

The federal government is giving school districts money to help with COVID-19 relief, but it is not enough to fund virtual learning in addition to all of the other issues that came up from the pandemic, such as needing to support students who have fallen behind and upgrading HVAC systems in school buildings.

The district said teachers will not have to teach virtual students and in-person students simultaneously.

"Teachers who teach virtually will only teach virtually," AISD said in a news release.

The district is creating a completely separate "virtual academy" that only serves remote learners. Students will still be connected in some ways to their campus but will do many classes with other virtual-only students.

AISD will send out more information to families by Friday.

Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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