This article appeared in the Sept. 24 issue of the Progress Times.
The La Joya Independent School District created a Virtual Learning Academy on Monday, offering students the option of attending classes online.
Trustees unanimously approved the Virtual Learning Academy during a school board meeting on Monday afternoon.
The Virtual Learning Academy will allow students concerned about COVID-19 to attend online classes.
“Everybody’s trying innovative ways to bring back those students,” said Trustee Espie Ochoa. “It’s not that parents don’t want them in school. It’s just that, as a parent, they’re really protecting their child.”
Convincing parents to bring students back to campuses in the middle of a pandemic remains a major challenge for La Joya ISD and school districts across Texas.
La Joya ISD had 22,897 students on Sept. 13, according to Superintendent Gisela Saenz, a nearly 14% drop from 2020.
La Joya ISD created the Virtual Learning Academy after the Texas Legislature passed Senate Bill 15.
The bill allowed school districts to count students who attend online classes toward their average daily attendance — a number that plays a major role in state funding.
Senate Bill 15, however, came with many caveats.
Districts couldn’t allow more than 10% of all students to attend classes online. Districts had to allow students in online classes to attend extracurricular activities in person. And districts were prohibited from forcing employees to teach online classes.
Gov. Greg Abbott signed Senate Bill 15 into law on Sept. 9. Work on the La Joya ISD Virtual Learning Academy was already underway.
“Since the beginning of the year, which is early August, we had different parents asking if we were going to offer any virtual learning opportunities,” Ochoa said.
La Joya ISD decided to make the Virtual Learning Academy available to students 11 years old and younger. Students older than 11 may attend the Virtual Learning Academy if they suffer from “high risk” medical conditions, including asthma, diabetes and severe obesity.
Administrators will also screen applicants for the Virtual Learning Academy based on attendance requirements and grades.
No student who had more than 17 unexcused absences during the 2020-2021 school year will be allowed to participate. La Joya ISD will also exclude students who received Ds or Fs in English, language arts, math, science and social studies.
Virtual Learning Academy classes will take place on Google Classroom, according to a presentation reviewed by the school board. La Joya ISD will provide Chromebook laptops and wireless internet hotspots to students who need them.
How many teachers La Joya ISD will need to teach online classes remains unclear.
If 10% of all students decided to attend the Virtual Learning Academy, the district would need 100 teachers to maintain a student-teacher ratio of 22:1, according to administrators who briefed the school board on Sept. 13.
The scramble to find Virtual Learning Academy teachers may temporarily disrupt other classes.
“In order to ensure continuity of instruction, vacancies created by teachers transferring to Virtual Learning Academy positions at the elementary level will be temporarily covered by music teachers and reading specialists,” according to a presentation reviewed by the school board.
Virtual Learning Academy classes will start Sept. 27.