‘Hold Harmless’ Causes Confusion: School Funding’s Link to Attendance Explained

(Lea esta historia en español.)

By Anne Drabicky

A recent push to get students back into classrooms for the final six weeks of school has resulted in widespread confusion about the changing rules surrounding a kind of state funding called "hold harmless." 

Reports have put the amount of funding at risk at as much as $30 million, when the amount Austin ISD could lose if it doesn't hit attendance targets is closer to $4 million–$5 million. 

In a normal school year, a district’s state funding is based on both enrollment and attendance. In recognition of the effects of the pandemic on both of those figures, TEA this year is providing districts with what is called hold harmless funding. 

Hold Harmless Explained

Hold harmless funding, while new to Austin ISD, is something the Texas Education Agency, or TEA, uses fairly commonly to account for events or natural disasters such as hurricanes that hit the Houston area in recent years. 

When COVID-19 forced schools to close classrooms and to move to virtual instruction, TEA initially guaranteed funding for the first two six-week grading periods of the year. (Each school year is divided into six periods.) In AISD, that funding totaled $8 million–$10 million. 

After that, hold harmless funding came with the requirement that all districts offer students the option to attend class in person and that districts reach a certain snapshot, in-person attendance level based on pre-pandemic attendance levels; that level is 23.6 percent in-person attendance in AISD. 

In-class attendance in Austin ISD schools is now comfortably above that mark, putting the district on track to collect the $12 million–$15 million for the three grading periods that make up the spring semester. 

That leaves the third grading period from last fall. As COVID infection rates and hospitalizations soared, the district heeded the advice of Austin Public Health and opted to remain virtual for the week after Thanksgiving Break. Because Austin schools were not offering students the option to learn in person, AISD did not meet the requirements to collect the $4 million–$5 million in hold harmless funding for the third six-week period. 

In March, TEA offered an opportunity for districts such as AISD that did not meet the requirements another way to qualify for the funding. In AISD, that requirement is that 43.6% (23.6% + 20 percentage points) of AISD students attend school on-campus for any 13 days between April 12 and the end of the school year. 

For Austin ISD, that equates to 7,000 more students in class. This does not mean, as some have suggested on social media, that all students have to come back to class.

AISD has also applied for a waiver from TEA to take into account the severity of the pandemic in November in Austin and still allow the district to receive its funding.

“We are confident that we can meet all the requirements for full hold harmless funding for the school year,” said Jacob Reach, chief of intergovernmental relations and board services.

Safety Priorities

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said that that funding does not explain the push to get students “off the Zoom and in the room.”

“We would never ask you to send your children to school to get school funding, and I never would send my child to school just to get funding from the state,” she said, “and there is no amount of state funding in the world that would get us to invite you to send your child into an unsafe situation.”

As they have all year, AISD staff and students will continue to follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention and American College of Pediatrics, as well as local public health officials, to ensure that Austin ISD classrooms are safe places for children to learn. AISD facilities require masks, social distancing, temperature checks, and contact tracing. And the result has been low positivity rates, lower, in fact, than the community at large. 

Bowie High School Principal Mark Robinson has encouraged his students to return by focusing on the benefits of in-person learning.

“Learning is inherently social. It’s one thing to be in a breakout room with your classmates, but it’s another thing to be in person,” he said. “We know that students will ask each other questions that they won’t ask the teacher, so they gain access not only to their teacher but also to their classmates.” 

Students who can eat lunch together, socially distanced in an outdoor courtyard, improve the mood on campus for everyone, he said.

“Staff have been demoralized this year for a number of reasons, one of which is seeing students be unsuccessful and not being able to support them,” he said. “Another reason is because of all of the black boxes and blank screens. They are missing the relationship with their students. There are some teachers who have students and they don’t even know what they look like.”

Martin Middle School Principal Brandy Gratten agreed.

“You get something a little bit different when you’re on campus,” she said. “School is fun! And we’re reiterating that message with our students.”

She said teachers, staff and students are diligent about following safety protocols. 

“Our students—they play football with each other, they throw frisbees around…while wearing masks,” she said. “For our teachers, that was something to really stick to, the safety protocols. Our custodial staff is doing a great job, and these nurses have been on top of it.”

Dr. Elizalde also highlighted the dedication of staff to maintain safe environments for on-campus learners. 

“Our classrooms have been welcoming students back for months without transmission, because of the work of our staff,” she said. “We certainly do want to ensure that we receive all the funding that the state promised, and we can do it in a safe manner.”