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Education

Virtual Learning Option Brings Hope To Some Austin Parents Worried About COVID — And Pressure On AISD's Pockets

Students look at their computers in an Austin school district classroom behind protective screens and while wearing masks.
Michael Minasi
/
KUT
Boone Elementary School students look at their computers behind protective screens and while wearing masks on Oct. 9, 2020. Michael Minasi/KUT News

When the week started, Sal Srinivasan was in the middle of a frustrating search.

“We are researching into setting her up in some online public schools that are available in Texas. Or doing actual home schooling. So we are looking into options," she said early Monday afternoon.

Srinivasan didn’t want to send her fourth grade daughter back to in-person classes at her elementary school in the Austin district. Her daughter is too young to get a vaccine; Srinivasan worried that if she were to get sick with COVID-19, she could pass it along to family members who are immunocompromised. That fear ramped up last week when Travis County went back into Stage 4 of Austin Public Health's risk assessment guidelines amid a new surge in cases and hospital admissions.

Last school year, Srinivasan’s daughter did virtual school through AISD, and she enjoyed the experience. Srinivasan said she didn't like the thought of pulling her daughter out of her school, but she only felt comfortable with virtual learning.

“We are not very happy with the online options we are looking at because most of the online schools that are being offered do not have live teachers. It’s more like, you know, 'watch videos and learn on your own' kind of basis,” she said.

But another option presented itself for Srinivasan on Monday when AISD said it would offer a virtual option after all.

AISD officials say they will have more information on Friday about what virtual classes will look like this fall, but in the meantime, the announcement was a great relief for Srinivasan.

“I was glad that my kid could go to the same neighborhood school like last year," she said Tuesday afternoon. "I am more relieved that I can keep her at home and not get her exposed before the vaccination for elementary kids is released.”

It’s not clear if all students who want to learn virtually will be allowed to, and the reason comes down to money. Last year, the state of Texas funded virtual learning the same way it did in-person classes. But this year the Texas Education Agency is only funding in-person learning, so districts have to pay for virtual school on their own. For AISD, there’s not much extra money in their budget to do that.

“If we could have it our way, we would give a seat to every possible student that needed that opportunity," said Anthony Mays, the chief of schools at AISD, at a school board meeting Monday night. "Unfortunately that’s not the reality we have. But ... as we collect this data, if we can meet those needs, then we will meet the needs of all the students that can go in.”

This week, AISD is asking parents to fill out a survey to find out how many families are interested in virtual learning. But whatever happens, it will be a financial burden for the district, according to George Gogonas, the district's interim chief financial officer.

"Providing a virtual option will result in a loss of district revenue," Gogonas said. "At this time it's hard to estimate the total loss, which is dependent upon the number of students and the length of time virtual is provided."

But AISD is hoping that the virtual option helps the district keep more families like Srinivasan’s in the long term. Last year, the district saw enrollment drop by 5,000 students, which ultimately means a loss in state funding. The district has been pushing hard over the summer to get families to re-enroll in AISD, but the recent surge of COVID-19 cases has worried many families about sending their children back into a classroom, especially at the elementary level.

Without any state funding allocated for virtual learning, most school districts in Central Texas said in May they wouldn't offer that option in the 2021-2022 school year. But the recent resurgence of COVID cases has parents asking for it.

On Friday, the Round Rock school district announced it would offer virtual learning for kindergarten through sixth grade. Austin Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said Round Rock’s announcement pushed her to try to figure out a virtual option, even though the Austin district has a much tighter budget than the Round Rock district.

Lourdes Balcarcel and her sons Ian and Caleb Balcarcel (l-r) at Dove Springs District Park in southeast Austin.
Gabriel C. Pérez
Lourdes Balcarcel hopes the school her sons Ian (left) and Caleb (right) attend will offer virtual learning this fall.

Now, parents like Lourdes Balcarcel are hoping this momentum continues. Her two sons attend an IDEA charter school, which hasn’t announced plans for a virtual option, something she and her kids want. She’s a former teacher and has enjoyed helping with her kids' learning during the pandemic.

"I like working with them," she said. "I’m there, keeping an eye all the time. Thank God my husband gave me that option of being there with them, him working and me watching over them. And if I have to do it again, I’m ready."

Her 11-year-old son, Caleb, is also pushing for virtual learning because he said it was easier to focus at home.

“School is kind of boring, at school you’re supposed to be sitting there and doing your work, but at home you can actually be in a more relaxed environment and still do your work,” he said.

They are hoping that the AISD announcement will lead IDEA to offer virtual classes; if not, they may consider sending Caleb to an AISD school.

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