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Education

Attendance Is Down, But Expenses Are Up. Texas Schools Don’t Know What That Means For Their Bottom Lines

Curbside lunch was offered at Sidney Lanier High School in March 2020 while schools are closed.
File Photo | Bri Kirkham | Texas Public Radio
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Texas schools have spent millions this year to make sure students are safe, fed and learning during the pandemic.

Public schools across Texas are in limbo as they wait for word on how much funding they’ll receive from the state this semester.

During the fall semester, the Texas Education Agency enacted a policy called Hold Harmless to keep districts from being penalized for low attendance rates during the pandemic. But the state agency hasn’t decided if it will continue Hold Harmless this spring.

Without a waiver to continue funding schools based on their pre-COVID attendance rates, districts stand to lose millions of dollars.

Enrollment in Texas public schools dropped by more than 150,000 students between October 2019 and October 2020, according to TEA. Many districts have also seen attendance dip during distance learning.

In San Antonio alone, school districts expect to lose $85 million this spring if TEA discontinues Hold Harmless.

“If they are not given some stability of funding, they'll have to make difficult decisions in the next couple of weeks with how they survive as a school district for the remaining part of the school year and next year,” said Julia Grizzard, executive director of the Bexar County Education Coalition.

The coalition, which represents 16 school districts and 360,000 students in the San Antonio area, sent a letter to Gov. Greg Abbott in December requesting an extension to Hold Harmless.

The Texas Education Agency has the power to extend Hold Harmless for the spring semester. But with the 2021 legislative session underway, Education Commissioner Mike Morath appears to be waiting for guidance from elected officials.

Part of the problem, said Grizzard, is that the potential funding loss comes at a time when districts have a lot of extra expenses to meet student needs during the pandemic.

“And that is not just academic needs, that's not just ensuring that they are able to stay engaged and challenged and connected to learning,” Grizzard said. “We have a lot of students dealing with significant mental health needs, new instances of food insecurity.”

Grizzard said districts are doing their best to meet students where they are, but a lot of families are stretched thin right now.

Emily Martinez with the nonprofit Communities in Schools sees that struggle first hand. From a “makeshift office” in her bedroom, she spends her days reaching out to families with students in virtual learning who haven’t been logging into class or turning in assignments.

“We start with phone calls, texting, emailing, hopefully we'll connect with them that way,” Martinez said. “But if not, then we go out to the home. And hopefully they'll answer the door.”

Martinez said a lot of the families tell her they know their kids would have better attendance if they went to school in person.

“They're not doing well sitting in front of the computer. A lot of them are not motivated. But the families are scared. They're afraid to send them back during this pandemic,” Martinez said.

One mom she spoke with works long hours as a nurse. Until Martinez texted her, the mom had no idea her daughter hadn’t logged into Zoom classes since Christmas.

“She's had some mental health issues, and she'll be returning to talk to the doctor. And they'll address it that way,” Martinez said. “But that's another common thing. You hear they're not motivated, but there's a lot of depression and anxiety behind that.”

Martinez does what she can to help families find solutions, but a lot of the problems that cause poor attendance won’t go away until the pandemic ends.

That’s why districts are so adamant that they need to continue to be funded based on their pre-COVID attendance rates.

“That funding translates to teachers, and counselors, and bus drivers and child nutrition workers. And with less funding, you have less of those people to serve kids,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District.

Northside is San Antonio’s largest school district, with more than 100,000 students. Most years, the district sees enrollment grow by at least a couple hundred students. This school year, enrollment dropped by about 3,000, mostly in pre-k and kindergarten.

Woods says it’s frustrating to think districts could lose out on money that lawmakers already set aside for them to use during the 2019 legislative session.

“You're asking districts to do things they've never done before, both from a teaching and learning standpoint, as well as from a spending standpoint,” Woods said. “And to not fund that — if the dollars are there — I struggle with why that wouldn't be funded.”

District leaders are especially frustrated because there’s no guarantee they’ll receive the same level of funding next year.

And next year is critical, because districts will need to help students learn what they would have learned this year if they weren’t in the middle of a pandemic.

“We need to come in very strong (next school year), and it needs to be a recovery year — needs to be a year where we really are looking at ways to accelerate learning for our children,” said San Antonio ISD Superintendent Pedro Martinez. “We need to do more for our children, not less, and you can't, we can't do more if you don't have the resources? It's just that simple.”

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