Austin-area educational leaders have asked the Texas Education Agency for increased flexibility related to district operations and state funding as the coronavirus pandemic continues.

In a joint letter by Austin ISD, teacher’s union Education Austin, the Austin Association of Public School Administrators and the Austin Council of PTAs, leaders advocated for the continuation of “hold harmless” protections.

Put in place this fall by the TEA, hold harmless protections allowed districts to be funded for the first half of the 2020-21 school year based on the previous year’s enrollment as opposed to current attendance numbers. Spring funding is currently set to be based on attendance data gathered in January.

Without hold harmless protections, AISD will be funded this spring using its January attendance numbers, which are anticipated to show an estimated decrease of about 5,000 students as compared to the 2019-20 school year, AISD Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said at a Jan. 11 board meeting.

Elizalde said that if the state were to remove hold harmless protections or if the district were to return to virtual learning full-time under current rules, AISD could have to look at cutting staffing, making programmatic changes or both in order to fill future funding gaps.

“I know I heard several times, 'Well, it's all about the money [when deciding how to offer classes].' The money is not going to be just sitting there. It’s about what the money does for our school district. It’s about jobs,” she said.

Elizalde said having fewer students is supposed to equate to a reduction in staff as well. The 5,000-student decline is equivalent to a loss of about 227 individual teachers with class sizes of 22, she said

“When you see 227 teachers, those are 227 people. That’s what I’m working to guard against,” she said.

The letter to the TEA also requested more local control in determining safe ways to deliver instruction to students during the pandemic.

“As COVID-19 cases continue to increase, and more families are affected, our ability to provide a quality education in a safe environment is challenged daily,” the letter read. “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.”

Although schools remain open to in-person learning, AISD urged parents and students Jan. 11 to participate in remote learning from Jan. 12-15 to help slow the spread of COVID-19 in the Austin area. By encouraging parents to keep their children home for virtual learning but keeping schools open for those families that do need to use them, Elizalde said she believes the district can maintain its funding by the state while also keeping students and staff safe. However, if the district were to fully cancel in-person offerings without permission from Gov. Greg Abbott, it would be subject to funding cuts by the state.