Southwest Independent School District Superintendent Lloyd Verstuyft started hearing from families in July that were reluctant to send their children back into schools with the delta variant causing case numbers, hospitalizations, and deaths to rise rapidly.

After surveying families, the school district of almost 13,500 students decided to offer virtual learning, despite knowing Southwest ISD could lose up to $3 million in state funding by doing so, Verstuyft said. The state is not funding remote learning this school year, but Texas lawmakers approved a bill Tuesday that would expand and fund virtual learning until September 2023, excluding students who failed state standardized exams. The bill awaits Gov. Greg Abbott’s signature.

“We have families who have family members in their household who may have underlying conditions or maybe are immunocompromised, and they feel that it would create a danger if one of the children were to bring COVID into the household to a devastating level,” Verstuyft said.

The Texas Education Agency will fund districts that participate in remote conferencing this school year. Remote conferencing allows school districts to provide virtual learning to students who cannot attend school because of a temporary medical condition, have tested positive for a communicable disease, or have been identified as a close contact of someone who has COVID-19. If students need to miss more than 20 days of school, the school must apply for a waiver to continue to receive funding.

Several San Antonio school districts started offering virtual learning for the 2021-22 school year after the delta variant disrupted their plans to have all students attend school in person, but with the state not funding remote programs, they have had to dip into their own pockets to cover the costs.

Some school districts plan to use their federal stimulus funds to cover virtual instruction for certain students. Northside Independent School District, San Antonio’s largest district, will provide remote learning to about 300 elementary students who applied in the spring to receive it, district spokesman Barry Perez said. NISD expects to lose roughly $2 million in state funds this year by educating these students remotely.

Schools restricted enrollment to students who are not old enough to get vaccinated against COVID-19, generally grades kindergarten through sixth. North East ISD opened up applications for virtual learning less than a week before school started on Aug. 23, offering that option only to students under age 12 who have compromised immune systems or live with family members who are immunocompromised.

San Antonio ISD is rolling out a virtual program for about 700 “medically challenged students and their siblings who qualified, as well as some who have gone through trauma due to the pandemic,” district spokeswoman Laura Short said. The cost to the district is nearly $1 million.

In Southwest ISD, about 278 students in grades K-6 qualified for the virtual learning program. Families had to show the district that having their children attend in person presented a “compromising situation that would be a danger for the student,” Verstuyft said. The students also had to participate in remote instruction last school year and passed those courses, demonstrating a high level of engagement. The district will tap into its fund balance and federal coronavirus relief funds to pay for the program.

Verstuyft said district leaders decided to offer remote learning because they knew those students would likely withdraw and stay home if they could not learn virtually.

“We just wanted to find a way to connect with and to continue their school experience, even if it has to be through that virtual format right now,” he said. “Safety and wellbeing are always first and foremost in our district. None of us have the right answers. I don’t believe there are right answers, but we’re going to continue making sure our students have a future through their educational experiences.”

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Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum covered education for the San Antonio Report.