Parents Casey and Martha Jones want their five children in school, but they have been perplexed by Fort Worth ISD not offering a virtual option to parents who want it.

“I’m a little surprised that we didn’t have one to begin with,” Casey Jones said. “The virtual school as an option for parents that have children with an underlying condition or whatever reason they couldn’t attend school in light of the pandemic seems like a reasonable way to offer instruction.”

Fort Worth ISD students returned to school exclusively in person on Monday. Without a remote option nor a mask mandate, some parents did not send their children back to school. 

While mask mandates appear to be in a legal gray area, remote learning is not and may come back soon. Several trustees this week directed district staff to bring information to Tuesday’s school board meeting about possibly offering remote learning to parents who want it. 

Providing a virtual option more than a week after classes started could be a tricky and expensive situation for Fort Worth ISD. 

‘Explore different options’

Administrators are working ahead of next week’s school board meeting to figure out how to change the current curriculum to virtual learning, spokesman Clint Bond told the Fort Worth Report. Last school year, some teachers taught in-person and remote learners at the same time, while others focused on each set individually. 

“As we explore different options, we may find that having dedicated virtual teachers may be an option,” Bond said. “As a plan comes together, the Finance Department will have to decide how to fund it.”

Remote learning won’t be cheap. Last year, the district spent $1.5 million to buy 24,000 laptops and 21,000 hotspots so all students could have their own device and access to the internet. Additionally, Fort Worth ISD is using extra funds from a voter-approved tax increase to build cellular towers to beam internet into students’ homes.

The district also will have to worry about losing some state funding. Legislation that would have provided state dollars so school districts could have virtual learning failed at the end of the regular session.

One potential way to fund virtual education is to tap into Fort Worth ISD’s $260 million in federal dollars dedicated to COVID-19 relief. Administrators have planned to use the money from the Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief fund to hire additional teachers, learning materials and mental health resources.

“It’s for COVID-related funds. What’s more COVID-related?” Casey Jones said. “How can you not anticipate, as a supposedly visionary leader of a district, that you’re going to need a virtual option?”

White Settlement ISD virtual academy

White Settlement ISD is using its stimulus dollars to offer a virtual academy for students in kindergarten through eighth grade. 

The all-online school acts as its own campus, with its own set of teachers and even has its own principal. The virtual academy was open to families within 55 miles of White Settlement ISD; enrollment is now closed.

White Settlement ISD spokeswoman Desiree Coyle said the district wanted to offer the remote environment to students who have excelled during the past year in virtual learning.

“We wanted to give them that option because you do have families who homeschool or just have different schedules or it could be for health reasons,” Coyle said. “But we wanted to continue to provide that opportunity so that we can make sure that we were still serving those kids.”

About 200 students are enrolled in White Settlement ISD’s virtual school.

‘Revisiting virtual learning’

The topic of virtual learning popped up during this week’s special Fort Worth ISD board meeting. Trustees joined a lawsuit, arguing that Gov. Greg Abbott does not have the authority to ban mask mandates.

Board Secretary CJ Evans was the first trustee to voice support for a remote learning option.

“I want to steward our resources to focus on what’s happening in Tarrant County,” Evans said. “Those current and ongoing legal proceedings (on mask mandates) around the state are going to sort out the issue, and while that is happening, I ask that administration bring us a plan for virtual instruction for our families and students who request it.”

Trustees Anne Darr and Daphne Brookins, who also serves as one of the board’s vice presidents, agreed with Evans. They said they wanted a report by next week’s meeting.

“We all know that in-person learning is the best way for our students to learn,” Brookins said. “I know there are a lot of parents out there afraid to send their children to school. Just know that we will be doing everything that we can legally possible to make sure we are doing what we can to make our campuses a safe learning environment, and that includes revisiting virtual learning.”

“This is something we really want to do because whether they send them or not, we want to make sure they are still learning,” Brookins added.

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at jacob.sanchez@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.

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Jacob Sanchez

Jacob Sanchez is an enterprise reporter for the Fort Worth Report. His work has appeared in the Temple Daily Telegram, The Texas Tribune and the Texas Observer. He is a graduate of St. Edward’s University.

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