Around 2% of Plano ISD students are participating in a Virtual Academy pilot program this year.

Assistant Superintendent Courtney Gober said class rosters, which were finalized in late September, showed 1,111 students in kindergarten through sixth grade were enrolled in the online learning option.

Students in kindergarten through fifth grade spend 60-90 minutes per day in a live, synchronous session with their teachers, while the remainder of the day offers a “customized asynchronous learning environment,” according to the district website. Sixth grade students complete daily asynchronous activities, and teachers design synchronous lessons for small groups during their daily live sessions.

"Every student is having synchronous time every day with their teachers in a core content area throughout the week," Gober said during the Oct. 5 PISD board of trustees meeting.

While the academy has been in place since Sept. 13, interim coordinator Katie Flores said students and teachers are continuing to learn and grow in their roles.

"Soon, we'll be hiring a counselor, attendance clerks and an assistant coordinator, so I'm really looking forward to that," Flores said. "We'll continue to customize the curriculum for our students. The more we learn and the more feedback we get from our students, the better we're able to make it, so we're excited about that."

Gober said the district purchased an online learning platform called Edgenuity for the academy, and staff have been working to adapt it to PISD's curriculum. Flores said students will soon receive Edgenuity workbooks and new Chromebook computers to use as part of the academy.

"We have the extension on the Chromebooks so they can be doing the worksheets [online], but a lot of our students wanted [the worksheets] in hand," she said. "There's some cutting pages and things for the littler ones."

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.

Gober said that commitment was necessary because of the staff reshuffling PISD did to find teachers for the online school.

"On Sept. 14, we realized we had a lot of parents wanting to drop or withdraw their enrollment from the Virtual Academy," he said. "The problem was that there was no teacher for [their students] to go back to."

Initial enrollment was around 1,600 students for the academy, Gober said. As part of Senate Bill 15, which allows independent school districts to offer virtual programs without a reduction in state funding, PISD was not allowed to require teachers to move to a virtual setting, he said.

"They have to choose to do so," Gober said. "That's important because if we could easily just move people around and assign them as we wanted to, it would make things a lot easier."

Once the academy had its teachers in place, Gober said the district had to reassign a number of teachers to fill in-person class needs at various campuses. He said the academy's teachers are currently housed on the campuses of Bethany Elementary, Skaggs Elementary, Schimelpfenig Middle and Vines High schools.

Gober also noted SB 15 provides funding for the online learning option through the rest of this school year and for the 2022-23 school year. Flores said enrollment for next school year will open in December.

Since funding for online learning was not approved by the Texas Legislature until after the school year began, Assistant Superintendent Beth Brockman said a new plan for staffing next year's academy is already in the works.

More information about the virtual academy is available on the district's website.