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'More needs to be done' | Austin ISD, education organizations co-sign letter to the State asking for funding flexibility

The letter was sent on Monday to the Texas Education Agency.

AUSTIN, Texas — Austin ISD, Education Austin, Austin Association of Public School Administrators and Austin Council of PTAs Executive Council co-signed a letter for the Texas Education Agency on Monday asking for flexibility throughout the rest of the pandemic and the continuation of the Hold Harmless Agreement.

"It is here we can more accurately evaluate and address the needs of our entire school community. As one of the over 1,022 ISDs in Texas, we are entrusted to make countless decisions to meet the safety and educational needs of our students, faculties and their families every day. Education is our job, but safety and well-being are our responsibility," the letter states.

Texas Education Agency's Hold Harmless Agreement was instated to protect school districts from losing State funding because of low enrollment numbers due to the pandemic.

There's no information regarding if the agreement extends through the spring 2021 semester.

At the beginning of January, TEA reported it conducted an intermediary data collection to better understand enrollment trends in Texas public schools year-over-year. 

"While, overall, 3% fewer students are enrolled in public education in Texas so far this school year (SY 2020-21), the majority of that reduction is represented by early education, prekindergarten and kindergarten, which are optional enrollment grades. Enrollment in grades for which school attendance is mandatory (grades 1-12) has dropped by 1%," the TEA said in a statement. 

The TEA said, as of October 2020, 54% of Texas public schools were learning on campus. On-campus learning increased by more than 700,000 students from the end of September 2020 to the end of October 2020, according to its statement from Jan. 8.

The letter from AISD and other local education organizations was sent to the Texas Education Agency on Monday. On Tuesday, Austin-Travis County officials said positivity rates in school-aged kids are "concerning." In Travis County, from Jan. 2 to Jan. 9, Escott explained middle school kids had an "all-time high" percentage of COVID-19 positive cases.

In Travis County high schools, Austin Public Health reports a 20.2% positivity rate at high schools; the middle school positivity rate is 27.1%, elementary school positivity rate is 19.8% and the preschool rate is 10%.

"All of our school-aged groups are outpacing the community positivity rates," said Austin's top doctor, Dr. Mark Escott.

Austin ISD is encouraging parents to keep their kids learning from home, if possible, but the school district can not make that mandatory. The reason AISD can't make that mandatory is that the Texas Education Agency requires on-campus learning at all times, specifically for students that don't have internet access. 

"Funding isn't about the dollars. The funding is about the positions that they represent. It is about jobs. We're 5,000 students short of our generated revenue for this year's budget that we will have to reconcile in the spring," said AISD Superintendent Dr. Stephanie Elizalde. "Should we have a concern of cases at a campus, we can, in fact, close that particular campus."

Texas local education agencies can close on-campus learning for two weeks if there is a COVID-19 outbreak and there is a significant number of campus staff impacted, meaning the campus can't staff a school even with adjustments, according to TEA. 

If there is an outbreak, a local education agency can then request a TEA waiver to get funding while offering remote learning.

"If you can choose virtual, now is the time to choose virtual so we can protect our school infrastructure, we can protect our educators," said Dr. Escott on Tuesday. 

Dr. Escott explained that coronavirus clusters in schools have been traced back to extracurriculars, specifically basketball, and also buses and carpools. 

"As we understand TEA’s responsibility to fund schools on a statewide level, we want to recognize that keeping our children, faculties and community safe is best served on a local level," said the letter sent to the TEA. "We ask TEA to extend the hold harmless provision and allow districts local decision-making power during this unprecedented crisis. I think we all agree that the health and well-being of the children in our community is the No. 1 priority in our state, and preserving the health and safety of the professionals and educational supporters who stepped up and continue to step up every day to work to meet the intellectual, emotional and social needs of our children is part of making that priority a reality."

In December, 82 Texas lawmakers sent a similar letter to Texas Education Agency Commissioner Mike Morath.

AISD said the recommendation to learn from home could extend into next week, as it monitors the public health condition with health officials. 

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