Following a June 3 announcement from the school district that virtual learning would not be offered for the 2021-22 school year, the Round Rock ISD board of trustees discussed alternative methods of funding the program at its meeting on the same day.

The announcement came after Texas House Bill 1468, which would have funded the program, did not pass in the 87th Texas Legislature. In the announcement, acting Superintendent Daniel Presley said RRISD had been planning on including virtual learning as an option for the fall 2021 semester, as vaccines are still not available to students under 12 years of age.

“We understand that the pandemic has presented diverse challenges for our families this school year, and we appreciate your patience and understanding as we have all navigated these unusual times together,” Presley said. “Our students and educators have demonstrated remarkable strength, perseverance and resilience, and this experience has made me more proud than ever to be part of the Round Rock ISD family.”

During the 2020-21 school year, the Texas Education Agency counted virtual attendance, known as remote synchronous attendance, as if students were attending school in person. As a school district's funding is tied to attendance, this allowed school districts to receive funding from the state for students who were attending virtually. HB 1468 would have continued this practice of allowing virtual attendance to be counted for funding, but it did not pass. Without this bill's passage, the district will not be receiving that funding for virtual students in the 2021-22 school year.

At the board meeting, district trustees discussed alternate funding methods that may be used to provide virtual learning for students in the fall as well as who might or might not qualify for the program. The reinstatement of virtual learning from the district is not guaranteed, even as options are being explored.

A survey has been shared with the community in order to gauge the need and interest in a virtual learning option.

RRISD Chief Financial Officer Kenneth Adix said the cost of providing a virtual method of learning through the district would be about $8,000 per student in terms of lost revenue.

“If I said that, this one child, instead of bringing them to school, I'm going to educate them virtually, the state would say, ‘Well, I'm not paying for that.’” Adix said. “And so we would lose, on average $8,000 a student, so there would be no revenue from the state for the funding of that child's education.”

Adix said his assumption would be that students who are virtual in the fall would return to in-person attendance for the spring semester. This would bring the $8,000 loss in revenue to $4,000 if they are enrolled for half the school year.

Place 7 trustee Danielle Weston said she would not be in favor of a virtual learning option that was not limited to those who are under the age of 12 or otherwise cannot get vaccinated for COVID-19 due to health concerns.

“The only circumstance that would have me voting for a virtual option is that the scope is very narrow and for me that is under age 12,” Weston said. “So, not having access to the vaccine until later fall months. So for example, as high school students, I don't think I should be getting this survey.”

Place 1 trustee Jun Xiao said limiting which students qualify for a virtual learning option would be sending the wrong message to students and their families and that a “mixed learning” model could be something the district should explore in the long term.

“By treating this virtual thing as a luxury for some family of students, it is not people [choosing] to stay home,” Xiao said. “They had to. It’s not that they feel better at home, just not going to school.”

Similarly, Place 6 trustee Tiffanie Harris said that the limiting of who would be able to enroll in virtual learning would ignore families that are multigenerational, with older family members or much younger siblings. She also said that returning to the pre-pandemic status quo may not be the best way to serve all of the district’s students.

“I want to acknowledge that there is a thought that we need to go back to what we were good at,” Harris said. “But we weren't serving all students, and I don't know how many times I've had to say that from the dais that when you look at our data, we weren't serving all students well. And so I do hope that we have used this time to reimagine how education can be more accessible to every single student in our district.”

Place 2 trustee Mary Bone suggested a partnership with an established virtual learning provider might be a better way to go in terms of funding.

Trustees for Places 3 and 4 Amber Feller and Cory Vessa, respectively, were not present for this meeting.

The board did not take action regarding any virtual learning options, and funding methods are still being considered. The board will meet next June 8 to review its policies and again June 10 for another budget update. Both meetings will be held at 5:30 p.m.

Editor's note: This story was updated to provide information about virtual learning during the 2020-21 school year.