The Texas Legislature sent a bill to Gov. Greg Abbott’s desk that would fund virtual learning for schools, leaving districts like Comal ISD to determine how to finance the efforts over the long term and effectively implement them.
The Comal ISD board of trustees is weighing its options to ensure students feel safe at home, but members worry about the financial burden of hiring more teachers to support virtual learning and how to make it successful after parents said their students performed worse in remote learning last year.
Senate Bill 15 would fund virtual learning until Sept. 2023 and allows districts to set up their own systems.
The CISD board met Tuesday for a regular meeting and discussed the virtual option, but ultimately decided to revisit it again after looking at more data and options.
The board largely supported having remote learning for students, but the bill only gives “attendance credits” rather than additional funding to operate remote learning and hire more teachers. The district would need to hire more teachers since they can not have existing teachers take on that extra responsibility on top of catching up from last year.
The bill does not require hybrid remote and in-person teaching, and board members said it was stressful on teachers last year.
“There are school districts right now thinking about this, of course, and how they will go about doing that,” Kim said. “Without initial dollars, that presents a real problem.”
Students who qualify for remote learning must have passed their STAAR exams, earned a C or higher in foundation curriculum courses and have no more than 10% of unexcused absences the previous year. This leaves out many students who failed their STAAR exams.
Board president Andrew Kim said based on student data, about 10% of students district-wide used remote learning.
Board treasurer Marty Bartlett said the district has about $139 million budgeted for instructional costs, and said he heard it would cost about $2 million or $3 million of that fund balance on the low end to do virtual teaching for that 10% of students.
Board trustee Cody Mueller said if it helps even a few students feel safe it would be a great option, but logistically implementing it for two more years and funding additional staff at every school and for almost every course would be difficult.
He said he agrees it would be a great option but would need a solid plan moving forward if they do.
Mueller said it could look like a program where students log in and get their work done, but there is not any funding or resources available for actual instruction, and asked if that is, “really best for students?”
“If we’re going to do something, let’s do the right way and let’s do it wholeheartedly and what’s best for the students,” Mueller said. “ Finding individuals to jump out there and lead this charge at every single campus for every single program or class, it’s not going to be possible this year.”
The district could collaborate with local districts, but their curriculums are so different it would be hard to streamline, board members said.
Kim also mentioned that if virtual learning is available, that must include for special education students and would cost additional money as well.
“That one is tough to resolve with special education to find a funding source, staff resources,” Kim said.
When it comes to UIL, board trustee Courtney Biasatti said it would be best to keep kids safe and not have virtual learning students participate in those activities.
“I strongly believe that if they want to be learning from home any UIL is off the books, this is just my personal opinion,” Biasatti said. “I feel like if it’s for a safety or security reason, I respect that wholeheartedly, but let’s keep those kids safe and secure until May and regroup and revisit this possibility at this point.”
The board will revisit virtual funding again during its regular board meeting Sept. 21. The board will wait for further guidance from the Texas Education Agency.