Nearly 2,400 Plano ISD students registered for a temporary, parent-led virtual option the district is offering for students too young to be vaccinated against COVID-19, according to district staff.

The asynchronous virtual learning option will be offered from Aug. 16-Sept. 3 for students in pre-K through sixth grade. The deadline for parents to register students for the option was Aug. 11. However, district staff said the preliminary total of 2,396 students could fluctuate over the next several days with enrollment and registration numbers.

Plano ISD began in-person learning for the 2021-22 school year Aug. 11.

Students who take part in the virtual option will remain enrolled at their home campus and will keep their assigned teacher, PISD Superintendent Sara Bonser said in an Aug. 9 interview with Community Impact Newspaper. They will be marked with an “excused virtual absence” for each day of remote learning, according to the district email announcing the temporary, virtual option.

During the Aug. 9 PISD board of trustees meeting, Bonser said the district could be in for another budget shortfall for the 2021-22 school year as students enrolled in the temporary virtual school will not qualify for attendance funding from the state.

“Districts just don’t have infinite resources,” Bonser said during the meeting. “People will choose to keep their kids home or find other options where they can keep their kids safe, if that’s what they feel compelled to do.”

PISD Chief Financial Officer Randy McDowell told the board an average student who is not in any special programs generates about $7,500 in state attendance funding each year. While the district did not have final figures for how many students would enroll in the virtual option during the meeting, he said it could quickly add up to $10 million to $40 million depending on how long it is offered and how many students enroll.

“That [$7,500 per student] doesn’t sound like a real big number until you start multiplying,” he said.

As part of the district's 2021-22 budget, which was approved in June, PISD staff projected an enrollment of 50,797 students for the current school year.

Bonser said the decision to offer the virtual option came after participating in an Aug. 5 call with the Texas Education Agency that yielded no solutions or guidance for the district in navigating the latest rise in COVID-19 cases.

“Our primary model of instruction is still face-to-face,” Bonser said in the Aug. 9 interview with Community Impact Newspaper. “But for those parents who might be able to provide more support to their children at home, we wanted to provide that [virtual] option but still preserve the face-to-face learning environment to the greatest degree possible, which I think we've done with this model.”

Instruction and assignments will not be delivered by campus teachers, the email stated. Instead, a select team of PISD teachers will serve as virtual content creators at each grade level. They will work with the district’s curriculum team to create and post content for students.

“I want [virtual learners] to be using Plano ISD curriculum and resources because we know how good those are,” Bonser said. “And [we know] how important it is for the continuity of learning for our kids to be able to have good resources at home and then come back to us and lose as little ground as absolutely possible. We're trying to do everything we can to support our students, keep them enrolled and then get them back to us right on target as soon as we can.”

Families who selected the virtual learning mode will be allowed to return their student to in-person learning at any point by notifying their child’s campus, according to the email.

While the virtual option is scheduled to last only through Sept. 3, Bonser said it could go longer based on the progression of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“With this plan in place, we feel like we have a viable option if we needed to extend [the virtual offering],” Bonser said. “We're going to get to Labor Day weekend and then ... we'll figure out what happens next. A lot can happen in two weeks—we've seen that in the last two weeks.”

Plano ISD’s decision comes on the heels of a similar move by Frisco ISD, which announced a temporary virtual option on Aug. 3. During the Aug. 9 FISD board of trustees meeting, district staff said 8,213 students had signed up for the virtual learning environment. At the meeting, trustees approved staff to seek a waiver from the Texas Education Agency to at least receive partial funding for those students.