Charles Lachman, 16, opens his laptop and flips his phone to do-not-disturb when it’s time for class to start each morning.
His desk in the game room holds the essentials: A copy of “Of Mice and Men,” headphones and notebooks. Otherwise, there are limited distractions — no fellow students tapping their feet, no whispers flowing around the room.
“I can sometimes get distracted by very small things,” said Charles, who attends Frisco’s Lebanon Trail High School. But in his virtual classes: “I can pretty much stay focused on my work and get it done.”
Charles’ grades improved this year, and he’s able to get more one-on-one tutorials from his teachers. During lunch, he can FaceTime with his friends who attend other schools. His mom says he just seems happier.
While millions of families are itching for school to return to a pre-pandemic normal, some students like Charles thrived in online classes and aren’t interested in heading back to brick-and-mortar buildings.
Now Texas school districts are grappling with how to meet the demand for virtual learning they anticipate will continue even after COVID-19 is brought under control.
“Many students will be happy to go back to their campuses,” said Chris Bigenho, Lewisville ISD’s virtual learning academy director. “The question is: what do we do with the students who did find that sweet spot in the online environment?”
State legislators — who are set to reconvene in Austin next week — will soon have to face that question head on. District administrators are pushing them to update the laws that govern virtual schools operations in Texas and, particularly, the regulations around how they are funded.
Previous attempts to revamp Texas’ virtual school laws died in committee, but proponents are hoping they’ll have more momentum this year after the pandemic forced digital learning into center-stage.
“We’ll have a lot more headwinds behind us this go-round,” said Sen. Larry Taylor, R-Friendswood, chairman of the Senate education committee.
Some districts are specifically seeking changes to Texas’ attendance-based school funding formulas, which requires students to be physically in a classroom to get counted as present in most cases.
“Our school finance system does not address remote learning,” Dallas ISD Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said at a recent Senate Education Committee hearing.
Not everyone is in favor of expanding these programs. Student performance at the handful of existing online public schools in Texas varies widely, and studies have found that kids enrolled in virtual schools lag well behind their peers in math and reading.
Plus, the sudden switch to virtual school last spring is often blamed for the tremendous learning loss that many students suffered this year.
Even those advocating for expanded online schools agree that in-person instruction is the best fit for most Texas students. But the months of virtual learning have also shown educators that for some kids, it can work well.
Those students may prefer online school because of its flexibility. They may work to support their families, and can now better balance school with a job. Elite athletes may be able to better schedule training around their schoolwork. Others may struggle with physical or mental health issues that make learning from home more comfortable.
In Frisco ISD, administrators estimate that as many as 20% of their students will want to continue some form of online or blended learning in future years. Securing the flexibility to expand their virtual learning options is a top legislative priority.
“We’re not talking about continuing what we’ve got right now,” said government affairs director Daniel Stockton. “If we have the ability to create intentional online programs for the long-term, that’s going to look different from what we had to do on a dime for COVID.”
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The Texas Education Agency made significant changes to existing regulations in response to the pandemic, including allowing districts to receive full funding for students who attend school remotely this year.
Education commissioner Mike Morath recently told lawmakers that it’s now up to them to figure out how virtual instruction ought to be funded when Texas isn’t in a state of emergency. “That will be one of the more challenging aspects of policy-making you’ll have to sort out,” he cautioned.
In normal years, only districts and charters that offered an online program prior to 2013 are authorized to operate virtual schools and still receive complete state funding.
Those opposed to the law argue it has created a small set of districts empowered to offer a full-time virtual education, akin to a “golden ticket.”
There are currently seven full-time, online programs operating in what’s known as the Texas Virtual School Network. The programs are based in districts from Houston and Hallsville, but they can serve any student in Texas.
While still quite small, enrollment in the virtual network has been on the upswing over the past decade. Then the pandemic brought a surge in interest.
Kyla Pickrell, a principal with Texas Virtual Academy at Hallsville, said her school served roughly 7,500 students last year. It now enrolls about 11,800 kids and is still accepting more.
“There may be some families who only did this because of COVID,” she said. “But we do have a lot of families that expressed that now that they’ve done it, they want to stay.”
Bigenho, in Lewisville ISD, said that even before the pandemic, his school system was losing about 100 high school students a year to the state-authorized online programs. That translates into the district losing more than $600,000 in funding.
He’s looking for the state to allow districts to create virtual schools that serve their own students, while still qualifying for full state funding.
Rep. Jared Patterson, R-Frisco, filed a bill that would loosen restrictions, specifically by lifting what he refers to as a “moratorium” on new online programs.
“We want to remove the reins and let school districts determine for themselves what they are able to offer, what they want to offer and what makes sense for their ‘client base,’” he said.
Changes to the system could come with a significant price tag for the state.
Some people remain skeptical of efforts to expand new virtual schools.
Students who attended virtual charters lost the equivalent of an entire school year in math education and about a semester in reading, according to a national study in 2015 by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes at Stanford University. And some states have fined virtual school operators millions for inflated enrollment and other issues.
The majority of students enrolled in one of the state’s full-time virtual programs attend a campus with a rating of “C” or lower, according to Raise Your Hand Texas.
Online learning can be done effectively, but there needs to be “guardrails’’ in place, said the group’s policy director Bob Popinski. They’re advocating for increased accountability and transparency measures.
Texas is not alone in trying to map a post-COVID education landscape that includes more virtual and blended learning.
A recent RAND corporation survey found that about one in five districts have “already adopted, plan to adopt, or are considering adopting virtual school as part of their district portfolio after the end of the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Others are working to adopt blended forms of instruction, in which students alternate between attending classes online and in-person.
Dallas ISD already planned to open such a hybrid school next fall. Hinojosa said the district will move forward whether or not it gets authorized to receive full state funding for students attending the school.
District administrators say it comes down to providing more choices for families.
Nadeen Barghouthi, who has two kids enrolled in Frisco public schools, watched as her daughter thrived online even as her son struggled.
She’d walk into her eighth-grade son’s room and see he was half-asleep at the computer, unable to concentrate. Her sophomore daughter, meanwhile, enjoyed the freedom the model affords. Julene, 15, says she’s a self-starter who likes moving at her own pace.
Her son went back to in-person school for the second nine-week period, while Julene remains online. It’s hard to imagine life after COVID, but Julene is already considering the idea of continuing with some form of virtual learning.
Barghouthi said she’ll support whatever her daughter’s decision is: “She’s getting the education she needs.”
The DMN Education Lab deepens the coverage and conversation about urgent 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, The 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 the Education Lab’s journalism.