In-Person School: Funding, Safety, and Classrooms

Edith Holmsten, Staff Writer

Each year, the Texas Education Agency (TEA) provides funding for school districts based on the number of students enrolled in each district. Due to changing enrollment this year, TEA provided the Austin Independent School District (AISD) the opportunity to gain about $30 million worth of funding contingent upon a certain percentage of in-person enrollment. With staff, students and families concerned about COVID-19 safety, the requirement for in-person attendance has been more difficult than in past years. 

During the 2019-2020 school year, AISD had about 80,000 students enrolled on campus, so the district hired teachers for the 2020-2021 school year anticipating 80,000 students, according to Jacob Reach, the AISD Chief Officer of Governmental Relations and Board Services. Reach said AISD lost enrollment of about 5,000 students during the 2020-2021 year, which meant AISD qualified for less funding from TEA than the amount of money the district needed to pay its staff. To make up for the difference in AISD’s funding eligibility and their actual monetary needs, TEA utilized their pre-existing Hold Harmless funding system where TEA gives certain districts more money than their eligibility due to natural disasters or events out of the district’s control. TEA agreed to give AISD about $5 million per grading period during the 2020-2021 school year if AISD meets standards for in-person attendance during the COVID-19 pandemic.

In total, the district could gain $30 million from TEA from Hold Harmless funding, which is only a small portion of AISD’s budget of over $1 billion. Still, Reach said the money is necessary to pay for staff members, whose paychecks account for about 87% of AISD’s budget. 

“We’re just talking about a little bit over 3% of the overall budget, but that 3% actually translates to actual staff,” Reach said. “The only way that we can make up that difference is by either not paying staff, but we have already kept them, or we just have to take that money out of our savings…Our fund balance is a little over $200 million, but obviously, if we took $30 million out of there, we may have the money to do it, but that’s money that we don’t have later to spend on other things.”

Reach said that to determine the standards for AISD to gain $30 million, TEA took a snapshot of in-person attendance on Oct. 30, 2020. On the snapshot day, AISD had about 23.6% of its students across the district learning in person, which meant AISD had to maintain the 23.6% in-person attendance during the first and second grading periods. For a student to be counted present in person, a student would need to come to school during their second or sixth period class for at least 13 days of the grading period, according to Reach. 

However, AISD went completely remote only the week after Thanksgiving break for COVID-19 safety, and the district did not offer an in-person option for students. TEA then ruled that AISD would lose about $5 million during the third grading period for not having an in-person option. Reach said AISD can regain the money through having 43.6% in-person attendance during the sixth six weeks. 

“To make up that third six weeks, the one that included the Thanksgiving break, they said that we can do 20 percentage points higher, so 43.6%, then they’ll provide us that period also,” Reach said. “In order to receive Hold Harmless funding for the entire year, the district would need to have 43.6% on-campus enrollment during that sixth six weeks.”

Reach said AISD is fortunately close to the goal of 43.6% in-person attendance, but there is still a large percentage of students learning online. Reach also said the district is noticing a stark difference in the percentage of in-person enrollment based on age groups.

“What we know is that our elementary is already well above that percentage, and our middle school is very close,” Reach said. “Our lowest percentage is in high school. They’re in the teens on the percent of on-campus enrollment.”

LASA principal Stacia Crescenzi said she also noticed that LASA has fewer students learning in person than elementary or middle schools. Nonetheless, Crescenzi said that more students have been coming to school during the last grading period. 

“We’re not currently at 44%, so it’s good that we can average K through 12 across the district,” Crescenzi said. “However, since the last six weeks have started, we’ve quadrupled the number of students that are back, maybe even a little higher than that.”

With more students in-person recently, Crescenzi said that the school has needed more staff members helping with student health checks to prevent any student with COVID-19 from entering campus. Each student who goes to campus has to fill out an AISD health form to confirm they do not have COVID-19 symptoms and have not been exposed to anyone with COVID-19.

“I’m really fortunate to have a staff that’s incredibly supportive of having students back,” Crescenzi said. “Every staff member has agreed for one day in the mornings to man one of the check-in stations for students and do the screening and do the temperature check, so we can have more students back and not too much of a burden on the school.”

Crescenzi also said that teachers are adapting their classrooms for having more students in-person to reach TEA’s goal of attendance. Multiple teachers are trying new technology during their lectures to conduct concurrent teaching where about half of a class is in-person and half of a class is learning online, according to Crescenzi.

“Although it’s tricky, I’ve been really impressed with the teachers who have already figured that out, particularly figuring out how to use the big TVs that they have in their classrooms so that everybody feels like a class, and they can make that concurrent teaching work,” Crescenzi said. “It’s tricky. There’s no doubt it’s tricky, but I have faith in the teachers. I absolutely believe in them and their ability to do that.”

Sophomore Kate Starkloff is one student who said she has benefited from concurrent learning. Starkloff said she started to go to school in person more recently because of the advantages of being in the classroom with her teachers. 

“I’ve heard a lot of kids that actually benefit from learning by themselves and teaching themselves the curriculum at home over Zoom, but it’s definitely an advantage for me to be in school,” Starkloff said. “I learn way better with visual and physical learning, so with the teacher, I can ask questions and actually see the teacher teaching and do worksheets.”

Beyond her relationships with her teachers, Starkloff said working alongside other students has been beneficial. Going to school in person has helped her stay more focused on her schoolwork and clear up confusion that she might have about the assignments, according to Starkloff.

“The social aspect is a huge thing for me,” Starkloff said. “Being able to work in the library with my friends and being able to talk with them if I have questions about the work or just having them there to help motivate me to actually do work has been great for me.”

TEA will decide on June 3 if AISD met the attendance requirement to receive money later in the summer. No matter what happens with the funding, Reach said he hopes students will feel safe coming back in person to reach TEA’s attendance threshold and also to have the educational benefits of in-person learning.

“Overall, we do believe that we have some students that can be better served in person,” Reach said. “We want to make sure that they know that we have a safe environment for them, that we want them on our campus, that they are welcomed and that they’re going to receive the great education being in person, so we certainly recognize that for many students, that’s going to be the best place to be served. But also for many students, there’s a personal decision that needs to be made.”