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Austin ISD's Virtual-Learning Program Begins With Staff Shortages, Large Classes

A student walks down the hallway at Travis High School.
Jordan Vonderhaar
A student walks down the hallway on the first day of school at Travis High School in East Austin on Aug. 17.

Deepti Bellur is one of hundreds of parents in the Austin school district with children who started virtual school this week. She’s cautiously optimistic about how the experience will be for her third-grade son.

“Honestly, it wasn’t our first choice,” she said. “We were virtual all last year and we were really looking forward to having him go back in person this year. But looking in mid-July at the case numbers rising, we were really hoping the district would give us a virtual option, and they did. And we’re very grateful for that.”

One of the pros of this year’s arrangement is that her son’s online teachers are from his neighborhood school, where he would attend if he eventually goes back to in-person classes.

One of the cons is that the virtual class has almost 50 students.

“It does seem overwhelming and I can imagine that it’s even more overwhelming for the teachers who have to manage this many children. But we’re going to give it a few weeks,” Bellur said.  

AISD's virtual learning program, which launched Tuesday, was hastily put together after the spread of the delta variant upset the district's plans for fully in-person classes this school year.

For many families who weren't ready to send their children back to the classroom, the program hasn’t been what they were expecting. Understaffing and large class sizes are some of the biggest issues.

When the district announced it would offer a virtual option a few weeks ago, Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde promised that teachers would not have to do both virtual and online teaching, like they did last year. Instead, this virtual program would have teachers completely dedicated to students who stay home.

But that meant the district would need more teachers.

“One of the big challenges and constraints that we’ve found was the staffing shortages,” AISD spokesperson Cristina Nguyen said.

Nguyen said the district currently has 138 teaching vacancies. That's about 30% higher than when the 2019 school year started.

“We’re seeing that district-wide,” she said. “It’s not only for our virtual learners, but it did impact our virtual-learning program, to the extent that we are seeing bigger class sizes.”

Larger class sizes in general can make it harder for teachers to connect with all of their students and stay on top of their needs. It becomes much more difficult for teachers and students when you add the additional challenge of making that connection over a laptop.

Some virtual classes will have long-term substitutes as the district continues to recruit distance-learning teachers.

“We are going to be working really hard to support our students that are in this program. So I would just ask families to stick with us, stay in communication with our staff and really get ready to learn for the semester,” Nguyen said.

Like many other school districts in the state, AISD wasn't initially planning on having a virtual option at all after legislation that would have allocated state funds for such programs fell through during the regular legislative session. The district has said paying for a virtual-learning program on its own will put it in debt.

A bill that would pay for virtual-learning programs through 2023 is being considered during the current special session of the Texas Legislature.

AISD officials have said the district’s virtual program will be available only for the first semester of the current school year. Elizalde said she hopes COVID-19 spread will have decreased or that younger students will be able to get vaccinated by next semester.

This week, one of the federal government's top public health experts said vaccine approval for kids under 12 may not come until the end of 2021.

For now, Bellur said she feels lucky that her son’s virtual classes will be taught by teachers from his neighborhood school. But still, she hopes she can send him back to in-person classes sooner rather than later.

“Honestly he’s missed out on the social and emotional development for the last year and a half. And that’s certainly a concern,” she said.

Got a tip? Email Claire McInerny at Follow her on Twitter @ClaireMcInerny.

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Claire McInerny is a former education reporter for KUT.
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