As the Austin Independent School District completes its second week of "back to normal" school with COVID-19 cases around the city and state rising quickly, the district has implemented rapid testing for the novel coronavirus while grappling with a significant enrollment decline.
Last week, all Austin campuses opened to in-person learning for every student who wanted to return, with no capacity limits, as mandated by the Texas Education Agency. Around 30% of AISD students returned to campus, with middle and high schoolers changing classes throughout the day; lunch was eaten at students' desks. That week, 23 new COVID-19 cases and more than 200 exposures were recorded. (For context, AISD recorded 79 cases in September and October, combined.) Austin cases were spiking too: The city reported over 1,000 active cases on Nov. 4, the highest total since August.
In its newsletter to district families, AISD reports that the district is "the first to apply and receive approval to participate in" a rapid testing program, which offers results within minutes. Although the tests will not be mandatory, they are available for all on-campus employees and students; Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde told the board of trustees on Nov. 2 that off-campus employees and students might also be able to access them if resources suffice.
Although thousands of students are back on campus, the district's initial projections have not been met, leaving it facing a devastating enrollment decline. In late September, when AISD was still all-virtual, the district's chief business officer Larry Throm reported that enrollment had dropped by 5,119 students from 2019 – largely driven by a 24% decrease in kindergarten and pre-K students, who can be as young as 3 years old. Throm hoped that as students returned to campus, this gap would be closed; otherwise, he said, "We're going to have to cut something."
However, on Nov. 2 Elizalde told trustees that "very few" of these students had actually returned, including "only a couple percentages" of pre-K and kindergarten students. As of Nov. 9, the district is 5,762 students below its projections, including 2,454 below projections in pre-K and kindergarten.
AISD said in an emailed statement that it had contacted all elementary families who didn't enroll, and their concerns were largely about health and safety, remote learning, and relocation. "Many of the families, when contacted, did indicate that they would seriously consider a return to AISD once the school district fully reopened and once the Travis County area moved below Stage 3," a spokesperson wrote.
There have been some returns at the pre-K level since in-person learning began: 739 students, 40% of the gap, have re-enrolled, and the district said "most" pre-K families are comfortable coming back once coronavirus risks in Austin are lower. But the district is still nearly thousands short of its overall projections. Elizalde said in the Nov. 2 meeting that the district now hopes students may return come January, when it has fully completed its phased-in return to campus. If that doesn't happen, and thousands of the youngest students enter other school systems, the impact will be felt by AISD for the next decade.
More immediate is the impact on the budget and the loss of around $10,000 per student in state funding. The state isn't currently docking districts for low attendance – it's implemented a "hold harmless" policy by funding districts based on attendance projections, not actual attendance, through the end of the fall semester. But if the district does not gain back students in the spring, it could see a loss of $50 million in state revenue – in addition to the $48 million in reserve funds the district is using to balance its budget this year. That kind of hole will not be easy to fill.
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