Texas Senate Committee Advances Virtual Learning Bill to Expand Online Courses


Texas senators faced a dilemma before a committee approved a bill calling for public funding for the virtual school.

Schools are begging the state to fund online courses as cases of COVID-19 rise and interest in distance learning increases. But state test data shows student performance plummeted during the pandemic, when many students in the state learned from home.

The Senate Education Committee finally approved a proposal Tuesday afternoon that would fund e-learning in most school districts in Texas. The bill is now heading to the full Senate, but it cannot be considered in the Texas House until there is a quorum.

Throughout Tuesday’s hearing, senators expressed concern over STAAR scores which revealed hundreds of thousands of students have fallen behind in the past year and a half. The results showed that nearly 40% of public school students failed their math exams and about a third did not pass their reading tests.

Texas Education Agency officials have suggested that school districts with a greater percentage of students participating in virtual learning experienced greater learning loss.

“Deep in my heart, I have a hesitation about virtual learning. I think we’ve seen the results of that… “But it’s a matter of how you weigh [students’] health and safety against their intellectual development.

Even with poor results, more school districts have recently launched limited online learning options in response to a spike in COVID-19 cases. With a decree in place prohibiting schools from applying mask warrants and students under 12 ineligible for a coronavirus vaccine, families are clamoring for a home learning option, according to school leaders.

But without state funding for e-learning, districts must dip into their own reserves or dip into federal pandemic aid to fund it. If lawmakers don’t approve funding for virtual learning, school districts will have to continue to rely on their own money to support expensive programs.

Frisco ISD plans to offer a limited virtual learning program this fall for students who are not eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Lawmakers have expressed broad support for a bill similar to the one discussed in regular session on Tuesday, but the proposal died after House Democrats in Texas walked out of session to prevent a bill from passing. controversial electoral law.

Senator Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, who drafted Tuesday’s legislation, has been working on his proposal since the end of the regular session.

“We’ve heard from many parents asking for a high-quality virtual option for their students, especially in light of the ever-changing situation we face with COVID,” Taylor said.

His bill allows school districts and charter schools that received a C grade or higher in the last round of state responsibility grades to offer distance learning to students.

Approved school systems must include at least one state-tested grade in their offerings and limit enrollment to 10 percent or less of their total number of students in the 2021-2022 school year. The Education Commissioner may lift this cap in response to public health crises or school district requests.

The programs would be open only to students living in the district, eliminating the possibility that districts could poach students from other schools that do not offer such an option. However, schools that do not offer e-learning can contract with another district that does.

The bill seeks to alleviate concerns about virtual learning that arose in the early months of the pandemic. For example, teachers cannot be required to teach virtual and in-person lessons at the same time. The practice was used in districts that operated both face-to-face and distance education and did not have the staff available to separate the teaching.

Schools will also have the option of returning children to classrooms in person if the students do not meet the academic requirements set by the districts. Any student wishing for in-person instruction should have access to it, the Friendswood Republican stressed.

Taylor’s bill puts safeguards in place to ensure that students always have access to any activities or supports on campus like extracurricular services or special education.

The education commissioner is to assess student performance in virtual programs separate from learning students on campus, the bill says.

The provisions of the law would expire in September 2027, but several senators have said they will not support the bill with this provision in place. Senator Royce West, D-Dallas, has suggested that the bill expire in August 2023 so lawmakers can revisit the proposal in the next regular session that begins in January 2023.

Senator Charles Perry, R-Lubbock, described the bill extending beyond 2023 as a breach of agreement. Perry expressed concern that the legislation would expand virtual education more permanently than necessary.

“It seems to me that we are seeing a titanic shift in philosophy on some level during a crisis that we know to be temporary,” Perry said.

Groups of teachers echoed Perry’s concerns on Tuesday, while acknowledging the need for a temporary solution in light of the current sanitary conditions.

Several principals whose districts have set up temporary virtual programs have testified in favor of the bill, saying their families are clamoring for the option.

At Denton ISD, where 300 students are expected to start the school year in online courses this week, there is a waiting list of around 1,000 children, said Superintendent Jamie Wilson.

“As we move through the summer and don’t have the option of imposing face coverings, we have more and more people interested in trying to protect their children,” said Wilson said.

The DMN Education Lab deepens coverage and conversation on pressing education issues critical to the future of North Texas.

The DMN Education Lab is a community-funded journalism initiative, with support from The Beck Group, Bobby and Lottye Lyle, Communities Foundation of Texas, The Dallas Foundation, Dallas Regional Chamber, Deedie Rose, The Meadows Foundation, Solutions Journalism Network , Southern Methodist University and Todd A. Williams Family Foundation. The Dallas Morning News retains full editorial control of Education Lab journalism.

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