Are we headed back to virtual learning? Area school districts speak on impact of Senate Bill 15

Coronavirus

AMARILLO, Texas (KAMR/KCIT) – As the 2021-22 school year continues throughout the state of Texas, Gov. Greg Abbott recently signed legislation giving the chance for districts around the state the opportunity to reimplement the virtual learning option for some students. 

According to the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) website, Senate Bill 15 gives districts the opportunity to receive funding for students who participate in virtual or remote learning through Sept. 1, 2023. This instruction can be delivered in a synchronous fashion, an asynchronous fashion or a combination of the two, for those in grades Kindergarten through 12th. 

WHAT DOES THE BILL CONSIST OF?

The bill states there are numerous conditions to virtual instruction. According to the TEA website, a maximum of 10% of all enrolled students within a district can receive remote instruction, if a district chooses to offer the option. 

For districts who choose to offer the option for remote learning, the bill outlines that districts must have a district-wide accountability rating of ‘C or higher,’ in the latest school year that the ratings were given. Districts are also required to provide an on-campus option for instruction. 

For students who participate in remote instruction, teachers are required to “administer assessments to students enrolled in local remote learning in the same manner as students learning on campus” and meet specific attendance criteria. Students are also eligible to participate in any extracurricular activity as the other students learning on campus. 

For districts to receive funding, they must count daily attendance for the students learning remotely, in which students meet the 240 instructional minutes per day. Participating districts will also receive a separate ‘A-F’ accountability rating for its remote learning program. 

WILL LOCAL SCHOOL DISTRICTS FOLLOW THE BILL?

After the recent signing of the bill, officials from area school districts told MyHighPlains.com that there are no plans to provide the choice of remote instruction to students. 

Amarillo Independent School District Representative April Brownlee said any change in instructional approach would first be communicated to families within the district but stressed that nothing is in the works. 

River Road ISD Public Information Officer King Hill said River Road ISD will continue to prioritize in-person learning, which he states is the “most effective means of educating” the district’s students. River Road ISD ended the choice of virtual learning in October 2020, according to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com

Hill said the only time that River Road ISD will implement in-person learning is when a student is under quarantine because of COVID-19. 

“We’ll always monitor and adjust, depending on the health of our students and staff,” he said. “But at this time, we intend to be in the classroom learning.” 

Canyon ISD Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Cameron Rosser said Canyon ISD is also going to continue to stress the importance of in-person learning. 

“Under Senate Bill 15, districts can receive funding for students who are doing virtual, or remote learning options. But that doesn’t change what we are going to do,” he said. “Obviously, we are going to look at it and see if there are any options we can provide to students who may be absent due to COVID or in quarantine or things like that. But it will be very similar to what we did last year.” 

This comes after the district chose to end the virtual learning option for students in November 2020. According to previous reports by MyHighPlains.com, the decision came after the district’s administration reviewed performance and attendance from students participating in virtual learning after the first six weeks of the 2020-21 school year. 

Rosser said that “courageous decision” was the best decision the district made in the long run for its students and their achievement. As the pandemic continues, students who are sick will be counted absent from school, including those who are absent from COVID-19-related issues. 

There are no discussions at the district level about whether this bill will change the approach Canyon ISD will take, Rosser said, with the addition of virtual learning not only impacting students but the staffing for the district as well. Rosser stressed that the district will “consider all the options on the table.” 

“We will look at data. We will look at where we are at but we learned from experience last year on what happens both with our students as well as stretching our teaching staff when you are providing both options,” Rosser said. “When we brought all of our students back, it was the best thing we could have done last year and we really saw some great gains (from) November on, just by having our students in the classroom.” 

Highland Park ISD Superintendent Jimmy Hannon said the only time the district is using virtual instruction is for remote conferencing, a measure set by TEA at the beginning of the school year. Under this policy, it gives each student unable to attend school because of a temporary medical condition a maximum of 20 days to learn in a virtual fashion. This includes individuals who are in quarantine because of COVID-19.

Other than the remote conferencing opportunity, the rest of the instruction in Highland Park ISD will be in person for the time being, Hannon said. While Hannon stressed that the COVID-19 situation continues to be fluid, he expects that the district will not add a virtual option for students.

“Our stance at Highland Park has been that students need to be in the classrooms. They need to be there with the teacher, in person. They need that social interaction. They need the support of their teachers and the staff and their peers. We just feel like that’s the better educational experience for everybody,” Hannon said. “We do understand that when people are sick, or they have close contact with someone who has been sick, they need to be out for a short period of time. But I don’t foresee us offering anything like that, unless it was a situation to where we had a campus close or the district was close. We had a virtual meeting with the health department last week and the consensus with the Amarillo area was pretty much that school closure, or district closure, would not occur based on student absences but more in a situation where we had a lot of staff out and they were not able to provide the supervision and the educational opportunity for the kids. It would be more of a staff issue than it would be for students.”

In a statement given to MyHighPlains.com, Hereford ISD Superintendent Sheri Blankenship said the district has no plans implementing virtual instruction outlined in the bill at this time.

“We are not able to offer virtual instruction given all of the parameters put in place.  The state is not allowing districts to use current classroom teachers to serve in person learning and virtual learning,” the statement reads. “We agree with this state decision as we experienced last year it is unreasonable for teachers to do both tasks. The reality is all districts experienced and are still experiencing a difficulty in hiring teachers for all classrooms this year.  All districts are also faced with the implementation of HB 4545 which places another burden of hiring educators.”

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