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Education

San Antonio School Districts Breathe A Measured Sigh Of Relief Over Promised Spring Funds

Student backpacks hanging on hooks in a classroom at Northside ISD's Mireles Elementary in  January 2019.
Camille Phillips | Texas Public Radio
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After months of waiting for word, Texas school leaders learned Thursday they will not be penalized for drops in enrollment and attendance during the pandemic this spring.

Gov. Greg Abbott announced the extension of the Hold Harmless funding just in time for spring break, with a few additional conditions: School systems must either have at least 80% of their students learning in person, or keep the number of students learning in person this spring at least as high as it was in October.

Still, San Antonio school leaders are cautiously optimistic they will be able to meet the new conditions.

“It's hard to predict what will happen in the next three months, but where we stand today, then it would not be a concern,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of the Northside Independent School District.

Northside is San Antonio’s largest school district, with more than 100,000 students. In October, almost 45% of students were on campus. That dipped to 44% in January, when coronavirus cases spiked. Woods said more students are learning in person again now that cases are on a downward trend, but that could change if the health metrics change.

Bexar County Education Coalition Director Julia Grizzard said continuing the Hold Harmless funding policy gives districts the stability they need to plan for summer and fall.

She said she believes the policy is flexible enough to avoid putting their funding in jeopardy, even with the added conditions.

“For example, if a school did need to go on to quarantine, the overall percentage of how often school students were in person, I believe, is allowed to be averaged,” Grizzard said. “What we have seen with this updated guidance is the acknowledgement that our schools are doing everything that they can to find students and provide excellent education.”

East Central ISD is another district balancing on the cusp of qualifying for Hold Harmless funding, with just over 49% of students on campus in October and slightly less than 49% in person in January.

East Central Superintendent Roland Toscano said the district recently brought 700 students back on campus, helping it get back onto the right side of the scale.

“We had just made a huge push to get students back into our buildings and gave a lot of assurances of safety to our community,” Toscano said. “(So) the timing of the (governor’s announcement that he was ending the state mask mandate) maybe wasn’t optimal.”

Despite the poor timing, Toscano said he was confident he won’t have families decide to go back to remote learning because the district is keeping its mask policy.

East Central normally serves about 10,000 students, but its enrollment dropped to about 9,700 this school year. Toscano said his district would have lost about $3 million in revenue this spring without Hold Harmless.

“It was going to have major staffing implications (and) summer programming implications, and so we're relieved and thankful,” Toscano said. “But we're still not whole given everything that we've got to recover from and what we're going to have to do going forward.”

Toscano said knowing he will receive full funding for spring gives him the confidence to start replacing some staff he lost through attrition this year. Instead of hiring for the same positions he lost, he said he plans to redirect those salary dollars to social workers and other employees that can help with students’ social emotional needs.

Northside’s enrollment dropped by about 3,000 students this school year, mostly in pre-k and kindergarten.

Woods said the district’s attendance rate dropped to 88% in January, when coronavirus cases spiked and some families returned to virtual instruction.

“It's better now than it was back in January, but it's definitely taken a hit since the fall,” Woods said, making Hold Harmless funding important for the district’s budget.

“This will certainly help mitigate that concern, but there’s still tens of millions (of dollars) in unpaid expenditures out there,” Woods said. “There are literally tens of millions (of dollars) of unreimbursed expenses yet to come — at least unless the federal dollars (for coronavirus stimulus) are flowed to school districts.”

The federal stimulus package passed in December includes $5.5 billion for Texas schools, but state officials have not said how that money will be spent. The Texas Education Agency used most of the first round of federal stimulus money as a replacement for state dollars already owed to districts.

Woods said Northside plans to invest in an extensive remediation program this summer to help students catch up on learning they missed during the pandemic, even if the state doesn’t pass new rounds of stimulus funding on to districts.

“It's our core mission. We know kids are behind. We’ve got to do everything we can to start getting them caught up,” Woods said.

He said his district is privileged to have enough money to pay for remediation at least in the short term, but money spent there will mean less funding for other district needs in the long term.

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