When the school year starts for Austin ISD students Sept. 8, students will be learning 100% remotely, utilizing virtual learning platforms and district technology while the majority of parents work from the confines of their home.

With constant changes in Texas Education Agency guidelines and district back-to-school plans, AISD parent Jennifer Stob said her family felt “jerked around” this summer and was not able to prepare for the approaching school year.

AISD’s board of trustees ultimately decided to push back the start of the school year by three weeks to Sept. 8, and the board elected not to send students back to classrooms until at least October.

As a supporter of public education, Stob said private school was not an option for her family, and she is glad the district delayed the start of school and in-person instruction due to the ongoing pandemic. Stob is preparing to support her child’s virtual learning with AISD this fall while also working a full-time job from home.

District parents, including Stob and Southwest Austin resident Amanda Lipscomb, already supported students this spring when AISD shifted to remote learning initially.

However, Lipscomb said that her daughter struggled in kindergarten last year, and with virtual learning in place for the fall, she said she fears her daughter will be “seriously behind.”

Knowing she will not be able to provide the extra supervision her daughter will need while also balancing work, Lipscomb has looked for an option that offers both child care and education support. Other parents have made alternative plans, finding neighborhood pods or supervised learning centers, officially homeschooling or enrolling in private schools.

Parents take charge

Although AISD is providing a curriculum and has made changes to its virtual learning compared to its spring offering, Stob said she is worried about the time commitment for parents. “This school year, I fear that we are more or less signed up to homeschool as parents whether we stay in AISD or not,” she said.

South Austin parent John Lindford said he does not feel comfortable with in-person instruction this year due to the pandemic and has concerns about AISD’s plan.

Both he and his wife work and struggled this past spring balancing their jobs while facilitating virtual learning at home with their daughter Nora, who now enters first grade. The family has withdrawn from AISD and decided to homeschool this year.

“We hoped the virtual learning would work for us, but as soon as a parent needs to be involved, we’re not going to be able to get our work done,” he said. “Virtual learning was just homeschooling with extra steps, so we might as well just homeschool ourselves.”

Lindford said homeschooling allows the family to set its own schedule and gives flexibility. AISD’s virtual learning requires full-day engagement from students, while homeschooling could include a mix of one-on-one activities and projects the student can pursue on their own. While the thought of teaching an entire year’s worth of lessons to his daughter while balancing a job is “impossible to get your mind around,” he said he and his wife are prepared to alternate days teaching and to take time off.

Stephen Howsley, public policy analyst for the Texas Homeschool Coalition, said his organization this July received at least 15 times as many inquiries about homeschooling than in any past July.

“For a lot of parents, this is not exactly their first choice, but nobody anticipated that the schools would shut down completely,” he said. “Every parent in the state essentially had to homeschool to finish out the spring semester already, and when TEA released guidelines this summer, I think that drove a lot to homeschooling.”

For parents looking for more guidance, there are organizations that offer curriculum and can connect parents with others in their communities. At Classical Conversations, a national homeschool group with chapters in South Austin and Dripping Springs, spokesperson Maggie Steele said individuals are connected with a “huge network of homeschoolers” that parents can draw ideas from.

For those who are homeschooling independently, Howsley said there are established homeschool communities that can help.

Neighborhood learning pods have also become popular this year, he said, allowing parents to rotate a group of students from one home to the other throughout the week to split supervision and teaching responsibilities. While participants are not officially homeschooling, these pods work similar to a homeschool community by sharing resources, experiences and support for one another while students continue to be enrolled in a school district and participate in the district’s curriculum.

Looking beyond the home

Similar to the community pods, local businesses have outlined their own plans to offer virtual learning supervision this year.

Lipscomb was able to find a program that worked for her family, enrolling at Austin Sports Academy, a Southwest Austin athletic facility that is offering supervised support for local students this fall for $800 a month.

Jeanette Spain, the business’s manager, said the program’s 40 spots for child care and support filled up within two days of being announced, and about 40 people are on a waitlist. Through the program, students will be split into small groups based on grade level and will be monitored as they work through their school’s curriculum. Owner Brad O’Kelley, a certified teacher, will also offer additional help to students as they work through assignments.

“I love that we have a plan,” Lipscomb said. “We can still support AISD while getting off of the roller coaster of ever-changing plans. I am thrilled that my daughter will have a teacher, some other kids [to interact with] and gymnastics at recess in a controlled environment.”

Spain said that if campuses open later this fall to in-person instruction, there will still be uncertainties for parents and students. She said her program’s limited size makes enforcing safety protocols manageable, and the program could create consistency for students.

“We’re seeing that some of the families want to be able to come here long term because this will end up being more consistent than what the schools can provide at this time,” Spain said.

In an effort to help parents who need child care services this fall, YMCA of Austin announced July 30 that it would be offering in-person, full-day child care at four South Austin locations to begin the school year. According to the organization, the YMCA program will offer a safe environment for students to complete online instruction while providing an opportunity to socialize.

Charter, private schools follow suit

Lindford said he considered private and charter schools for the coming school year, but most in Austin were using similar strategies to AISD.

Charter schools are required to follow the same state and local guidelines as public school districts but do offer parents an alternative.

While AISD pushed back the start of the school year until Sept. 8, IDEA Public Schools, which operates a charter school in South Austin, began the school year Aug. 11. Classes were held virtually, but IDEA Austin Executive Director Tricia Noyola said IDEA is currently planning to start in-person instruction Sept. 8, at least one month prior to when AISD will be phasing it in, resulting in some new enrollments.

“This is a super challenging environment to teach in, but we feel very prepared,” she said.

With seven Austin-area campuses, Noyola called her schools “nimble.” She said the district was able to quickly launch distance learning last spring and kept in contact with all students.

“There is no perfect option for parents right now,” Noyola said. “In looking at other [districts], I’m really proud of what we’re putting out at IDEA.”

In Texas, private schools with a religious affiliation are not bound to local health orders. Most in Austin, including Trinity Episcopal School, however, have chosen to follow guidelines set by Travis County.

“School will start on August 25 as planned; all classes and activities will be held virtually,” Trinity Episcopal School of Austin said in a statement to Community Impact Newspaper. “While we’re grateful for the option we have decided based upon the number of COVID-19 cases in our area to begin online.”

St. Michael’s Catholic Academy in Southwest Austin this summer also released a reopening plan consistent with local orders, Head of School Dawn Nichols said.

Lindford said he hopes his family will only have to consider homeschooling for the coming year and not long term.“We don’t plan to keep homeschooling beyond what we have to do,” he said. “We are eager to get back to get back to AISD and public school, and if and when there’s a safe way to do in-person learning, we will gladly do that.”