AUSTIN (KXAN) — Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde gave an update Tuesday evening on how the Austin Independent School District is faring in her State of the District address.

Elizalde was named the lone finalist for AISD superintendent in July 2020. The entirety of her time leading the district has been during the pandemic.

During the address Tuesday night, she explained while the pandemic has been tough, it’s a chance to learn how to better meet the needs of students. The superintendent said she is “honored” and “humbled” to serve in Austin ISD, and she hopes other urban school districts can learn from AISD.

Below is a breakdown of some of the topics Elizalde touched on during her interview.

Mask mandate

Elizalde attributes the district’s success with keeping COVID-19 case numbers down to the community’s willingness to follow safety protocols, including a mask mandate.

“While our community may not all be in agreement, I think the uniqueness of the community of Austin Independent School District is the ability to wade through disagreements and then come together to support something that you may not be in agreement with,” she said.

Austin ISD adopted its mask requirement in August before the school year began, despite Gov. Greg Abbott’s ban on mask mandates in public schools. An early October KXAN analysis of the 10 largest school districts in Texas, including AISD, found the district had the lowest total rate of COVID-19 cases among its student and staff.

Elizalde said the district surveyed families before making a decision on the mask mandate and made data from the 2020-21 school year available to show parents the case numbers when masks were in use.

“Rather than saying, ‘long-term research from throughout the country is saying this,’ folks in Austin ISD wanted to know what did the data say here, and we did use that to help us plan,” she explained.

As far as backlash to the mandate, Elizalde said she’s “heard very little in terms of a negative response.” She said staff members and the district’s executive leadership team are on board with mask rules. A group of parents in September did file a lawsuit against the district over its mask rules, saying they wanted a choice for their children.

Student performance during the pandemic

Elizalde admitted the pandemic has had a “huge effect” on student performance. Third-grade reading in the last two years is down a percent, and third-grade math skills are down by half. And when you look at certain student groups, Elizalde explained, such as the economically disadvantaged, the Latino population, the Black population, special education, etc., the gaps in learning become even larger.

Elizalde said while these problems existed before the pandemic, this is an opportunity to look at those disparities and find ways to eliminate them.

“Our students haven’t across the board been doing as well as they could have been pre-pandemic, we now have an opportunity to learn about those things,” she said. “And what I do think the pandemic has allowed us to do is uncover the disparate performance that we have in student groups.”

The superintendent also said just because students aren’t necessarily learning the skills required by the state, they’re still learning skills at home they would’ve not otherwise been exposed to.

“I think our kids spent more time with their families than they ever did before. I think they were working on recipes and measuring how many cups of this ingredient or that ingredient. So now I think it’s incumbent upon us to take those real-life learnings and actually translate them into academic success,” she said.

Enrollment decline

Austin ISD has been struggling with enrollment for at least the past five years, according to numbers obtained by KXAN in June. In the 2016-17 school year, enrollment was at more than 83,000, and by the 2020-21 school year, it had dropped to about 75,000.

Elizalde said this could be attributed to multiple factors, including gentrification, where students who are economically disadvantaged are being pushed out of the district.

“They’re being pushed out of the city. They can’t afford to live in the areas that they have formerly lived in, either because of rent, because of housing prices, because of taxes in our area,” Elizalde explained.

She said another factor is parents choosing charter schools over public schools, explaining it’s an opportunity to look within the district and analyze areas AISD can improve.

“That means there’s something in some of our schools that we are not providing or that we’re doing in a way that is not being received,” she said.

Funding Texas public schools

When asked if there’s anything public schools can do better, the superintendent said funding is a huge issue that prevents schools from investing in a variety of services students need.

Elizalde said she thinks the state of Texas doesn’t fund public education enough, even with House Bill 3, an $11 billion public school finance reform bill that was signed into law in June 2019. She described the bill as more of a reward, not an investment.

“Most of our funding in all of House Bill 3 is a result of after the fact,” Elizalde explained.