San Antonio school leaders welcomed the news Tuesday that the state would provide funding relief for low attendance days, but many called on officials to do more, as attendance problems will continue to plague districts.
Gov. Greg Abbott and the Texas Education Agency notified school districts Tuesday that they would be able to drop low attendance days in the first four six-week periods of the school year from their funding formulas. The state primarily funds districts based on their average daily attendance rates.
This adjustment will help districts recoup some state funds that would have been lost due to below-average attendance rates following two coronavirus surges, but it won’t help districts during the last two six-week attendance periods remaining in the school year.
“I think if you asked any superintendent anywhere, they would tell you they don’t think this is going to magically end at that point,” said Brian Woods, superintendent of Northside Independent School District, San Antonio’s largest district.
Since the onset of the pandemic and subsequent shuttering of classrooms for months, school districts have struggled to get all their students back, whether or not there was a spike in COVID-19 cases, Woods said. Schools saw attendance rates drop to their lowest in January, when the omicron variant drove up coronavirus cases and hospitalizations. In San Antonio’s largest school districts — Northside, North East and San Antonio ISDs — attendance rates sometimes sank below 80% in the weeks following winter break.
During the 2020-21 school year, state officials agreed to fully fund districts, despite large drops in enrollment and attendance, based on the number of students who attended school before the pandemic. The funding aid announced Tuesday stops short of covering the entire 2021-22 school year by 12 weeks.
“What happened when people got sent home is some really just got out of the habit (of going to school), so we’ve got to break that cycle and try to emphasize school is important, which we’ve been doing for a long time,” Woods said. “But the state has to recognize that as long as COVID is a reality in communities, there will be a fear of large, in-person gatherings, and some parents really have that concern.”
Interim San Antonio ISD Superintendent Robert Jaklich said in a statement that while he appreciated the funding adjustment for the first 24 weeks of the school year, there are still several weeks left and schools continue to see decreased attendance rates.
“It is our hope that the state will also consider revisiting these challenges of the last two grading periods and provide the necessary funding adjustments, as needed,” he said.
North East ISD Superintendent Sean Maika also expressed similar cautious optimism in a statement.
“At this point, it’s too early to know all the details and exactly how much relief we will see,” he said. “But we are definitely encouraged that the TEA is looking at ways to ensure schools have much-needed funding.”
Earlier this month, House Public Education Committee Chairman Harold Dutton and his fellow committee members sent a letter to Abbott and Education Commissioner Mike Morath, calling for funding help for schools. They noted that average daily attendance hovered around 95.4% before the pandemic but has fallen as low as 70% for some districts since winter break.
The committee members suggested the state use attendance figures from the 2018-19 school year to fund districts this school year. Instead, the TEA will use 2019-20 attendance rates to fund districts if their levels fell below those from two years prior.
“In recent years, the Texas Legislature has taken steps both to significantly increase funding for Texas public schools, and also to focus the structure of the finance system firmly on the needs of our students,” Morath said in a statement. “This adjustment further accounts for COVID-19-related learning disruptions, and is yet another way we’re prioritizing the needs of our state’s teachers and students.”
In February, Northside ISD amended its budget to reflect a revenue decrease of about $22 million, Woods said. The district’s average attendance rate is about 1.8% lower than it was in spring 2019. More than 100,000 students attend Northside ISD.
“That’s replicated everywhere in the state,” he said. “My rural colleagues that I talked to seem to be experiencing the same thing; in some cases, worse.”
Southside ISD, a more rural district with about 5,600 students, saw attendance sink below 75% on some days during this school year, Superintendent Rolando Ramirez said. Before the pandemic, the district averaged between 93% and 95% attendance each day.
Ramirez said without this funding assistance from the state, Southside ISD would be facing a budget shortfall for next school year. As it stands, the district would have lost about $2.2 million in state revenue this school year without the aid, and while Ramirez would have liked for the entire school year to be covered, he said attendance has gradually improved since winter.
“We’ll take any kind of help,” he said.