AUSTIN, Texas — Austin ISD announced it will offer virtual learning options for some kindergarteners through sixth-graders this fall.
It's a message some parents feared wouldn't come.
"I mean, I'll be honest, I started crying," said parent Heather Roell. "I was so happy."
Roell has a fourth- and sixth-grader in the district. Her 9-year-old fourth-grader has a heart defect, making him high risk. Before Monday's announcement, Roell planned to pull her son out of the district.
"That really sent me scrambling, especially with the no-mask mandate that was signed by the governor," said Roell. "So yeah, we've been applying. We applied for two public online schools."
In June, Austin ISD officially announced all students would return to on-campus learning for the 2021-22 school year with no virtual learning option. However, with Austin Public Health moving the county to Stage 4 of its risk-based guidelines, the district changed its stance.
For the most part, Texas will not provide funding for students in 100% virtual learning.
The Board of Trustees held a special meeting on Monday to discuss COVID-19 data, safety protocols and protection measures. During that meeting, trustees explained the AISD budget is tight. Trustees said it could cost the district $9,000 per student per year, so the number of students who get this option will be limited.
The head of Austin's teachers' union, Ken Zarifis, said state rules are making things difficult.
"What we're really concerned with is a governor that simply is not allowing enough virtual instruction to be funded," said Zarifis. "We need more funding."
So how does the district plan to pay for students to learn at home?
During the meeting, board members spoke about using federal Esser fund dollars but pointed out that it would take money from other parts of the budget.
They also discussed the homebound instructional program for students with underlying health issues that qualify. The classification allows these students to still be counted as present while learning from home.
"I'm so grateful for AISD for really pushing the envelope and trying to find options for parents," said Roell.
The school district said it will be releasing more details on Friday, July 30. Parents are encouraged to fill out this survey to help the district gauge how many students need virtual learning.
A timeline was laid out during the meeting. As of now, parents won't know if their student was approved for virtual learning until the week before school starts on Aug. 17.
It said it is reassuring teachers there will be no concurrent teaching for the upcoming school year. Teachers who teach virtually will only teach virtually.
The board dedicated an hour to public comment on those issues at the meeting. To learn more about providing public comment over the phone, visit the Austin ISD website.
The meeting comes as COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations are increasing in the Austin area and around the country, driven by the highly contagious delta variant.
Austin ISD is among several local school districts strongly encouraging mask use for the upcoming school year. Unvaccinated students, staff and visitors are "especially encouraged" to wear a mask.
The American Academy of Pediatrics is recommending anyone over the age of 2 wear a mask at school, even if fully vaccinated. This is a bit different from the Centers for Disease Control recommendations. The CDC has previously said vaccinated students and staff don’t need to wear masks. That guidance was reversed on Tuesday, July 27.
Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order in May prohibiting government entities, including school districts, from requiring or mandating mask-wearing after June 4.
On Saturday, Rep. Vikki Goodwin (D-Austin) said she and 31 other Texas lawmakers sent a letter to the governor urging him to allow schools to mandate masks and offer virtual learning options.
With schools reopening in just a few weeks, the petition says lawmakers have received several calls from concerned parents about the lack of COVID-19 protections in schools for the upcoming school year.
Monday’s Austin ISD meeting was streamed live on the school district’s website.
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