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Austin-area schools see rising teacher and student absences

María Méndez
Austin American-Statesman

From Round Rock to Austin to Hays, Central Texas school districts are reporting hundreds of teacher and staff absences and lower student attendance rates amid the latest COVID-19 surge.

Still, district leaders say they are hiring substitutes and paying teachers more to substitute during their planning periods, and they are ready to call on central office staffers to teach.

In the Round Rock district, officials reported 420 teacher absences Wednesday, the first day of classes after the winter break. By comparison, the district saw 230 teacher absences when students returned from the winter break last year.

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Central Texas schools are coping with soaring teacher absences amid the latest COVID-19 surge. Students also are staying home in numbers far greater than in the same period last year.

The district is working to cope with the increased demand for substitutes, including by using "guest educators" or paying teachers more to substitute, district spokeswoman Maritza Gallaga said. 

"Unexpected or sudden increases in staff absences can always, regardless of the cause, create challenges to campus operations," she said. "In preparation of our return for spring, the district made every effort to ensure that appropriate staffing was in place."

Teacher absences in Austin, Eanes and Hays schools

The Leander and Austin districts also have counted hundreds of teacher and staff absences since schools reopened for the spring semester.

In the Austin district, officials reported 384 substitute requests Wednesday, when classes resumed. The requests grew to 521 Thursday and 614 Friday. In 2021, the district received 318 substitute requests on its second day of spring semester classes and 354 on the third day.

The Eanes district had 87 teachers and support staffers absent on its first class day Tuesday for various reasons, according to the district, which employs about 617 teachers.

The Hays district has received roughly 250 substitute requests every day since classes resumed Tuesday and saw a peak of 286 Thursday, according to spokesman Tim Savoy.

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During a typical school year, the district would see 180 to 185 substitute requests per day, he said.

The district's pool of approved substitutes shrank over the course of the pandemic from about 500 to 100 but has jumped to more than 300 with recent efforts to increase substitute pay and recruitment.

That has allowed the district to fill most of the absences with substitutes, Savoy said, but the district also is paying its teachers to substitute and is asking parents and school volunteers to serve as temporary substitutes. If needed, district officials could combine classes, he said.

Student attendance drops across schools

The Hays district saw its student attendance drop about 10 percentage points last week, Savoy said. In a normal school year, district leaders would report student attendance at 93% to 95%. It averaged about 85% last week, he said.

"The good news on that is that is showing that people who are either ill with coronavirus, who've tested positive or have had a close contact appear to be staying home," he said.

"Our dashboard records known positive cases that were on our campuses, and those numbers are going up, but not anywhere near the number that we thought yet," he added, acknowledging that they could continue rising in the next few weeks.

On Friday evening, the district's dashboard reported 49 active COVID-19 cases among its 21,432 students and 26 active cases among its staff of 3,383.

District officials have begun installing specialized air filtration systems in all schools by using more than $4 million from federal relief funds and are encouraging students to wear masks, Savoy said. The district also is allowing five-day isolation and quarantine periods under the CDC's new guidelines, as long as individuals continue to wear a mask for five days after symptoms dissipate. 

"We're doing everything we can to keep school open," he said. "There's no substitute for having that in-person, in-classroom, on-campus experience."

Like in school districts across Texas, Savoy said virtual learning took a toll on Hays students' academic performance and mental health.

Austin Superintendent Stephanie S. Elizalde has said she will "not hesitate" to close a classroom or campus if needed because of an outbreak, but district leaders said they plan to stick to in-person learning with a mask mandate.

State funding for school districts to go fully virtual is no longer available, but the district's decision to bring students back to campuses is driven by the academic and social/emotional needs of students, spokesman Eduardo Villa said.

The Austin district also saw student attendance rates fall last week compared with last spring semester.

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On Wednesday, the district reported student attendance of almost 84%, but that fell to about 81% Friday. Last year, when many students were learning virtually, the district's attendance for the first three days of spring classes hovered around 93% to 94%.

In Eanes, with an enrollment of 7,911 students, 485 were absent from the first two days of classes, according to a report to the school board. That includes students who got sick over the holiday break and are still isolating. They will not be counted on the district's COVID-19 dashboard, which records cases found after students return to campus, the report said.

Broken down, 134 students were out due to COVID-19 but "may not have been onsite" at a school, 143 were out due to reported "self-isolation" and 208 were absent because of another illness, such as the flu.

During the first two days of the spring semester in 2021, the district had 30 students absent due to COVID-19 who might not have been at a campus, 45 who reported self-isolation and 51 who were absent due to another illness.