As COVID Surges, AISD to Offer Virtual School

Remote option for K-6 students too young for vaccine


AISD headquarters in South Austin (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

As Austin sees its fourth COVID-19 surge of the pandemic, Austin ISD has swiveled back to planning to offer a virtual learning option this fall. The decision came just before a special called AISD Board of Trustees meeting on Monday, July 26, and mere days after Austin and Travis County moved to Stage 4 of the local COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines. Although the state's reluctance to fund virtual learning has not changed – and AISD is still trying to navigate choppy financial waters – the district will offer virtual instruction this fall to students from kindergarten through sixth grade.

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde cited the move to Stage 4 – which includes recommendations of an essentials-only lockdown for unvaccinated Austinites and masks indoors for everybody – in her email to staff announcing AISD's virtual learning option. Despite the prevailing recommendations of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Austin Public Health, and the concerns of a heated "my child, my choice" call campaign during public comment, Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency are not allowing school districts to require masks on campus or COVID testing, or to require employees or students to disclose their vaccine status.

AISD has encouraged both masking on campus and vaccination, and medical experts including Dr. Lauren Ancel Meyers of UT-Austin's COVID-19 Modeling Consortium emphasized at the board meeting that masking will be crucial to prevent in-class spread. Despite the state's ban on school mask mandates, AISD officials have confirmed to the Chronicle that the district must and will enforce caregivers' requests for their children to wear masks on campus. But for students too young to be vaccinated (ages 12 and under), the district has decided to offer "virtual school" to be taught by designated virtual­-only teachers without connecting to the students' home campuses.

School districts are funded based on their average daily attendance, and the state won't be counting virtual attendance for this purpose – if 2,000 students opt for virtual school during the first semester, that alone would represent a loss of $9 million. Such a hit could jeopardize jobs, Elizalde said, so the district may put a cap on enrollment in this fall's virtual school, selecting students into the program. Around 65% of elementary schoolers returned to campus by the end of this spring, and an AISD survey found that most district parents were interested in returning to the classroom, although Black and Latinx families have significantly higher rates of interest in virtual school.

To determine families' interest in virtual learning, AISD is relying on a survey (available here). If you're an AISD parent or student, fill it out.

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KEYWORDS FOR THIS STORY

COVID-19, Austin Independent School District, Austin ISD, Stage 4, COVID-19 Risk-Based Guidelines, virtual learning, Stephanie Elizalde, Austin Public Health, Greg Abbott, Texas Education Agency, COVID-19 vaccine, Lauren Ancel Meyers, UT-Austin COVID Modeling Consortium, face masks, AISD funding, AISD enrollment, AISD Board of Trustees, Back to School 2021

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