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El Paso districts still weighing virtual learning programs after Legislature secures funding

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El Paso school districts have been slow to decide whether they’ll offer full-time virtual learning now that state lawmakers guaranteed districts will receive state funding for it — making what otherwise would have been a costly endeavor a financially palatable one.

Some districts said they’re evaluating the text of Senate Bill 15, while others said they are awaiting guidance from the Texas Education Agency.

The lack of immediate action isn’t surprising. Unlike other Texas school leaders who pushed for the Legislature to make state-funded remote learning an option during the pandemic, El Paso superintendents did not advocate for it. None of the region’s nine superintendents signed onto a June letter 30 superintendents sent Gov. Greg Abbott urging him to add the issue to the second legislative session agenda.

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SB 15 also comes with staffing challenges because unlike last school year, teachers must teach entirely virtually or in-person.

“Districts would have to hire certified teachers to offer remote instruction or repurpose in-person teachers for remote learning,” Canutillo ISD spokesperson Liza Rodriguez said in an email. “It will be difficult to staff remote learning because the region has already seen a shortage of certified teachers for current job openings.”

Despite that challenge, Canutillo “is exploring ways to offer remote instruction” under SB15, Rodriguez said. She did not provide a timeframe for when a decision could be made.

Spokespersons for the El Paso, Ysleta, Socorro and Clint districts had similar responses when asked whether they would offer a full-time virtual learning option once the governor signs the bill into law. None were able to definitively answer whether the option would be made available to qualifying students.

“There’s pros and cons to both worlds. Definitely I think that we prefer to have our kids face-to-face, which is what we’ve pushed for,” said Brenda Chacon, chief academic officer for the Ysleta Independent School District.

“Kids come to school for the overall experience,” Chacon said. That includes the academic component, but also social development and access to the meal program and school nurses, she said.

Limitations on who can receive funding

SB 15, by Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, only funds remote learning for public school and charter school students who passed last year’s State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness exams, received a C grade or higher in their language arts, math, social studies and science classes, and had few unexcused absences.

STAAR exam scores alone limit the number of students the bill would fund. Nearly half of El Paso area students who took the STAAR failed the math portion.

Virtual instruction funding is also capped at 10% of a district or charter school’s students.

Only one El Paso school — La Fe Preparatory School — cannot receive state funding for virtual learning due to its failing grade in 2019’s state academic accountability ratings, the last time the TEA graded schools before suspending the rating system during the pandemic. The small charter serves low-income students in the city’s Segundo Barrio.

It is ultimately up to districts to determine what their virtual program would look like. Many districts already offering virtual learning, like Dallas and Austin, are limiting it to students in kindergarten through sixth grade who aren’t yet eligible for the coronavirus vaccine.

Districts launch short-term online option

Though YISD is still weighing whether to launch a full-time virtual program, it’s making short-term virtual instruction available to students who need to quarantine because they tested positive for COVID-19 or came into close contact with someone infected.

This online learning option is available for any student for up to 20 days, according to the Texas Education Agency’s guidelines for “remote conferencing.” Though separate from SB 15, teachers similarly cannot simultaneously teach in-person and remote conferencing students for districts to receive state attendance funding.

YISD is having substitute teachers provide instruction to these remote students.

The Socorro Independent School District is in the process of rolling out a remote conferencing option, spokesperson Daniel Escobar said.

Cover photo: A classroom at Don Haskins PK-8 School on the first day of the 2021-22 school year. (Corrie Boudreaux/El Paso Matters)

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Molly Smith

Molly Smith has been a reporter for the El Paso Times and The (McAllen) Monitor. She’s covered education, criminal justice and local government. A Seattle native, she’s lived in Texas since 2014, with stops in Austin, the Rio Grande Valley and now El Paso. She can be reached at mksmith@elpasomatters.org or 915-247-8857.

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