The launch of the Dallas ISD Virtual Academy on Tuesday was a relief for Joanna Owusu.
When Onesimo Hernandez Montessori Academy opened its doors to students last week, Owusu did not send his 6-year-old daughter, Quinn, on her first day of freshman.
“We just couldn’t figure out how to send it,” Owusu said. “So we made the call about a week before school started – just hoping that DISD would offer virtual. I notified their school, but I didn’t unsubscribe, as I was hoping – and I still hope – that she can keep her place in this school.
The Owusu family were among many debating what to do with their young children when campuses opened for in-person learning amid a wave of coronavirus.
It wasn’t until August 19, four days after Quinn’s school year began, that officials in Dallas announced the creation of his virtual academy.
About 1,700 students – aged 11 and under – registered for the virtual academy before Monday’s deadline, ISD Dallas officials said. Another 500 families expressed interest, but did not receive answers to their questions before the deadline.
Tuesday was ostensibly a day of “meeting” with the child’s teacher, said academic director Shannon Trejo. Classes would begin in earnest Thursday, for at least a nine-week period, with 100 of the district’s teachers providing instruction.
For those who missed the deadline, unless their child is medically fragile, the virtual option is no longer available, Trejo added.
“It’s going to take a little while to register the students, set the schedules and start instruction,” she said. “We want to make sure that, given the pandemic and the loss of learning that has occurred, we don’t want to waste any more time with a transition to a virtual academy. “
Like many families in Dallas, Owusu and her husband, Drexell, were wary of the increase in COVID-19 cases in Dallas County. (Drexell Owusu is the Chief Impact Officer of the Dallas Foundation, a supporter of the DMN Education Lab.)
They were also concerned that Quinn – ineligible for a COVID-19 vaccine due to her age and born with a genetic blood disorder, sickle cell trait – would no longer be susceptible to serious illness. They doubted the first graders could keep their masks on while remaining socially aloof.
The older children in the family, the sons entering grades 7 and 9, attend face-to-face classes at DISD schools. Owusu said she felt more comfortable sending them in, both vaccinated and more responsible for keeping their KN-95 masks in school.
“She might get even sicker, and we just couldn’t [risk it]”Owusu said.” The second she gets the vaccine, she’ll be gone. But it’s just a risk we don’t see taking.
Likewise, Sunita Sapkota has so far kept her 4-year-old son out of kindergarten at McShan Elementary this year, fearing to expose him or the rest of his family to COVID-19.
Her eldest daughter, who is 9, goes to school – but said she was afraid to take off her mask even to take sips of water.
“She said to me, ‘Mom, you have so many problems and health issues,” Sapkota said.
Because Sapkota has various underlying health issues – and because her children are too young for the vaccine – she wants to enroll them in the Dallas ISD Virtual Option. She is waiting for confirmation from the district that they are ready to leave.
“When things get better, I will definitely send them to school,” she said.
At the end of last week, the district had 12,000 students below its expected enrollment of 145,045, Superintendent Michael Hinojosa said Thursday. As of Monday, they had brought back thousands more, or about 8,600 students compared to their estimates.
Before the pandemic, the district typically didn’t approach its biggest enrollment numbers until after Labor Day. A high percentage of at-risk and immigrant students enroll late, Hinojosa said.
Attendance figures during COVID-19 did not follow these patterns, he added, saying the district may not know the full picture for eight or nine weeks in the school year.
The creation of the virtual academy reduced DISD’s enrollment deficit, connecting with nearly 600 students who were not attending school before its announcement. The virtual option also attracted around 140 other students who weren’t enrolled at Dallas ISD last year.
It wasn’t a good option for everyone, however.
Cody Suess and his wife chatted for days about what they would do for their 10-year-old daughter’s education this year.
Would the in-person school be safe for their unvaccinated child? Do any of them have to take time off to go to home school? Should they hope for a virtual school option?
They ultimately kept their daughter, who suffers from Down syndrome and underlying health issues, at home for the first week of school at Dallas ISD as they considered their options. She was one of the many children who were supposed to return to class who didn’t initially.
On Tuesday, they decided to bring her back to Bishop Arts STEAM Academy. The teachers had assured Suess that her daughter would be in a small classroom and that safety protocols would be in place.
“When I dropped her off this morning, the manager said, ‘Oh my God, we’re so happy to see you,’” said Suess. “And I’m just like ‘Okay, keep your distance.'”
He had hoped for a virtual option, but felt the iteration recently announced this year would not work for their family or daughter’s needs.
“It’s a catch-22,” he said. “We just hope for the best, we prepare for the worst.”
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.