"Quite frankly, [COVID-19 has] defined everything we do," Killian said.
Community split over in-person, virtual learning options
Breaking down in-person and virtual learning numbers, 49% of district students are currently enrolled in on-campus learning, Killian said, while the remaining 51% are enrolled in virtual classes. Per state regulations, Killian said districts are required to maintain in-person instruction for all interested students.
However, he said spikes in positive COVID-19 cases and close contacts following district holidays have put significant strains on both staff and students. Killian said most positive cases and surges in contact tracing can be traced back to school holidays, such as the Thanksgiving weekend and winter break.
He recommended parents who are able to keep their children at home do so.
Killian said the coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the education process for students and staff, particularly those having to pivot between in-person and virtual learning as a result of close contacts and positive cases. Citing district data, he said 77% of secondary students and 59% of elementary students who failed one or more classes in the fall were enrolled in virtual learning.
In-person learning does not resemble what it did in years prior, Killian said; safety protocols have altered the ways staff interact with students, in addition to teaching both in-person and virtual curricula.
"Our folks are pretty stretched thin and pretty much at their breaking point," he said. "I will say that they've done exceptional work, but they're tired, and we're all tired."
He requested grace not only for the teachers instructing students in an unprecedented learning environment, but also for the students navigating new learning practices amid COVID-19.
In the Q&A portion of the address, Killian said it is unclear whether virtual learning opportunities will be offered by the Texas Education Agency for the 2021-22 school year. Based on the current pace of the vaccine rollout and heightened coronavirus safety concerns in and around Travis County, he said he believes some virtual learning options will be available.
What causes a school closure?
The district identified two categories of exposures related to COVID-19: a confirmed positive case and a close contact.
A close-contact case is defined as one where an individual spent 15 or more minutes with an infected individual over the course of the day. Contract tracing procedures include interviewing COVID-positive individuals regarding who they might have interacted with as well as reviewing security footage during the designated tracing window.
Killian said PfISD consults with Austin Public Health over its contract tracing practices. He said the goal is to decrease positive cases and prevent outbreaks where possible, resulting in more restrictive practices and a higher number of close contacts.
Ultimately, Killian said the cause for a campus closure is twofold: the number of positive cases on a given campus paired with APH's designation of the situation as a cluster.
PfISD has not yet shut down a campus due to a coronavirus outbreak; however, Killian said grade levels have forcibly switched to virtual-only instruction due to a string of cases within that grade.
If a school closure were to occur in PfISD, Killian said the campus would shut down for several days and undergo intensive cleaning. Staff would still host virtual instruction remotely, and the district would be able to utilize a temporary waiver for the closure.
Killian addressed a shortage in available substitute teachers to address campus needs. PfISD has launched a program in which Central Office administrators substitute on campuses on a regular basis.
The district is searching for additional substitutes and so far has hired more than 200, he said. Substitute teacher orientations are held twice a month, and the district is still seeking additional participants.
COVID-19 impacts on budget, enrollment
Additionally, the coronavirus pandemic has impacted PfISD's enrollment numbers, which subsequently resulted in decreased funding.
Approximately 1,500 fewer students are enrolled at PfISD for the 2020-21 school year compared to previous projections, Killian said. More than half of student losses extend from pre-K and kindergarten programs.
PfISD has 25,293 students enrolled for the 2020-21 academic year compared to the previous 26,800 projection.
The loss of students resulted in a $9.4 million revenue shortfall via state funding. Districts receive a specific amount of state funding based on student enrollment, which districts use to design their budgets to meet revenue needs.
In response to the enrollment decline, the district implemented 5% department budget cuts and adjusted payroll to not fill as many vacancy positions, unless urgent. Total budget reductions amounted to $5 million with $2 million saved via department budget cuts and $3 million through payroll and not filling vacancies.
The reductions impacted department budgets, not campus budgets, Killian said. In preparing for the 2022-23 school year, PfISD is crafting a budget based on a 26,300 enrollment and a tighter budget, he added.
To watch the State of the District address, click here.