Among Gov. Greg Abbott’s priorities for the second special session is the issue of how school districts will provide education to students throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. His agenda for the session includes the following item:
EDUCATION: Legislation providing strategies for public-school education in prekindergarten through 12th grade during the COVID-19 pandemic, which ensures:
- students receive a high-quality education and progress in their learning;
- in-person learning is available for any student whose parent wants it;
- the wearing of face coverings is not mandatory; and
- COVID-19 vaccinations are always voluntary.
While most parents and educators are looking forward to a return to in-person instruction, districts have been asking state leaders to allow for continuing state funding for virtual education on a limited basis to accommodate certain students and/or extraordinary circumstances.
SB 15, which passed the full Senate on Aug. 11, 2021, includes the following provisions:
- Through Sept. 1, 2023, a school district/open-enrollment charter school with a rating of C or higher can operate a local remote learning program to provide virtual courses to students.
- The program must include at least one tested grade level (including every tested subject in that grade level) or a complete high school program (including each course requiring an end of course assessment).
- The state will provide funding for full-time local remote learning meeting the requirements of the bill.
- Enrollment in local remote learning programs is capped at 10% of the total number of students enrolled in the district/charter school during the 2021-2022 school year; however, the commissioner of education can waive the cap upon application by a district/charter school or in response to a public health emergency.
- A teacher cannot be assigned to a full-time virtual program unless the teacher agrees to the assignment in writing or the assignment is specifically stated in the teacher’s employment contract (a TCTA amendment).
- Teachers cannot be required to provide both virtual instruction and in-person instruction for a course during the same class period (a TCTA amendment from previous versions of the bill).
- Parents must be allowed to select in-person instruction for their child.
- Students enrolled in a virtual program are counted toward the district’s/charter school ’s average daily attendance in the same manner as other students.
- Virtual courses can be synchronous, asynchronous, or a combination of synchronous and synchronous, and can be provided in combination with in-person instruction.
- In addition to being enrolled in the district/charter operating the virtual program, a student is only eligible for the program if the student has reasonable access to in-person services for the course at a district or school facility; and meets any additional criteria, including minimum academic standards, established by the district/charter.
- Districts/charter schools can contract with other districts/charter schools to provide a virtual program to their students. For purposes of state funding and accountability, a student in such an arrangement is considered enrolled in his/her home district.
- Students in virtual programs will be administered state assessments in the same manner as other students. Students in these programs must also be allowed to participate in extracurricular activities in the same manner as other students.
- Teachers of virtual courses must complete a professional development course on virtual instruction.
- The major provisions of the bill expire Sept. 1, 2023, in anticipation that the report of the new Commission on Virtual Education, due by Dec. 31, 2022, will provide guidance for legislators to consider a more permanent system during the 2023 legislative session.
While SB 15 has passed the Senate it must also be approved by the House, which is currently unable to conduct business due to the lack of a quorum, before it can be sent to the governor.
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