Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 15 into law Sept. 9, according to the Texas Legislature Online system. That bill, authored by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, allows independent school districts and open-enrollment charter schools to offer virtual programs without a reduction in state funding.
District staff said families of around 1,500 students applied to the Virtual Academy, though applications were still being processed Sept. 10, and a final enrollment number was not yet available. The application window for the Virtual Academy ended Sept. 5.
Students participating in the virtual school will receive both synchronous and asynchronous instruction, according to the district website. District staff said students in kindergarten through fifth grade will spend 60-90 minutes per day in a live synchronous session with their teachers, while the remainder of the day will be held in a “customized asynchronous learning environment.” Sixth grade students will be expected to complete daily asynchronous activities. Teachers will follow students' progress and will design synchronous lessons for small groups during their daily live sessions, according to district staff.
As part of the application process for the academy, parents had to agree to serve as a home learning coach to help students maintain “high levels of daily engagement,” according to the website.
Parents also had to commit to keeping their students in the virtual school for the remainder of the 2021-22 school year. However, district staff said an “administrative transfer” back to their home campus may be required for students who are not “successful in the virtual setting.”
During the Aug. 9 PISD board of trustees meeting, Superintendent Sara Bonser said the nearly 2,400 students enrolled in the district’s parent-led, temporary virtual option offered from Aug. 16-Sept. 10 would 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.
“That [$7,500 per student] doesn’t sound like a real big number until you start multiplying,” he said, estimating that an unfunded virtual option could end up costing the district between $10 million and $40 million, depending on how long it was offered and how many students enrolled.
While a select team of PISD teachers served as virtual content creators at each grade level for the temporary virtual option, more district teachers will be utilized for the Virtual Academy, though staffing is still being finalized. District staff said interested teachers were invited to apply to be part of the academy. Beyond those applicants, teacher selection took into account changes in campus staffing needs due to students enrolling in virtual school. Staff said Academy teachers will work from a centralized district location.
More information on the PISD Virtual Academy is available on the district's website.