While the 2021-22 school year has started in Clear Creek ISD, education could soon change, particularly for the district’s younger learners pending the passage of a bill during the Texas 87th Legislature’s second special session.

The CCISD board of trustees on Aug. 23 approved a virtual learning program for 2021-22 that would be available to kindergarten through sixth grade students. The program is contingent on legislative funding, which would come through the approval of Senate Bill 15. The bill—authored by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood—advanced to the House on Aug. 24, trustee Laura Dupont said during the Aug. 23 board meeting.

The district opened its virtual learning application at noon Aug. 24; the application closes at 11:59 p.m. Aug. 28. Virtual learning would begin Sept. 7, which is also the last day of the special session, CCISD officials said.

The offering is not to be confused with Clear Connections, through which any student could take any class, Deputy Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Robert Bayard emphasized: This modality would be temporary and used as a way to provide continuity of instruction amid COVID-19. Clear Connections was eliminated as an option for 2021-22 over the summer, due to both funding-related questions and low interest.

“This is much different from [Clear Connections],” Bayard said.

Remote learners at all grade levels will also have access to a teleconferencing option, meant for those who may need to receive instruction from home for durations of up to 20 days. The remote conferencing option was approved along with the virtual learning proposal during the Aug. 23 meeting.

The option is offered via the Texas Education Agency, district leaders said; it was previously available only with issuance of a waiver that had to be requested for each individual student, per the TEA. The instruction, offered synchronously and asynchronously, will not be given by the student’s classroom teacher, but lessons will align to district scope and sequence.

SB 15 would allow for funding of virtual learning programs, essentially by allowing districts to count remote students’ attendance for funding purposes, district leaders said Aug. 23. At CCISD, the bill would spur the creation of virtual classrooms run by district teachers, where students are taught a predominantly CCISD curriculum, per board presentations.

The virtual learning option is being offered in response to the pandemic, since children under 12 years old are not eligible for a COVID-19 vaccine, per an Aug. 24 media release from CCISD.

The option is intended for medically fragile students to use in place of the district having a mask mandate, Bayard said Aug. 23. Therefore, administrators recommend parents enroll their students in the virtual program for at least a semester at a time if it is funded.

“There's a lot of unknowns, and I just want the community to know the district is trying to put this option in place and do as much as possible under the guidelines that are being given to the district,” Dupont said during the meeting. “It will present an option for students that do not feel safe going into those environments right now for whatever reason.”

Instruction would be available both synchronously and asynchronously, Bayard said during the meeting. Special services would also be made available, both virtually and on campus although not in individual homes, he said. Students in the virtual learning program would be assigned a new campus number and not have an association with their home campus.

The virtual learning classrooms would be staffed by reassigning existing staff from grade levels with low enrollment, Bayard said. If necessary, federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds could be reallocated to fill needs, he added.

“I believe that we know that we can deliver a program that maps to what we believe is a standard in the district,” trustee Arturo Sanchez said, referencing both a 2021-22 remote platform and one that could be envisioned as a permanent fixture. “I think it's incumbent on [the state Legislature] to help support this going forward.”

Several trustees, including Dupont and Scott Bowen, expressed frustration at the state Legislature for putting ISDs in a position in which virtual learning is so in flux. Bowen is for virtual options, he said, because of the opportunities they provide for personalized learning.

“It is kind of disappointing that this option is not [permanent], and I know it's not realistic to bootstrap an online option in the space of a week,” he said as the K-6 virtual learning program was discussed. “What I encourage us to do, if this goes into place after the House acts, is continue working to develop this program, make it stronger and sustainable, [so we can] really serve the needs of students who learn better this way—and not just think of it as a COVID[-19] stopgap.”

For more information, applications and answers to frequently asked questions, visit www.ccisd.net/virtuallearning. The district will host a live session regarding the virtual option Aug. 25 at 11:30 a.m. at www.ccisd.net/live.