Superintendent Millard House II marked his first day of school in the Houston Independent School District by traveling from campus to campus, welcoming students back and peeking into their classrooms to watch them learn.
But his first stop — though not on his official schedule— held special meaning.
“As I dropped off my fourth grader at school this morning, he told me, ‘Dad, I have butterflies in my stomach,’” House said, referring to the range of emotions many students are feeling as they start a second school year amidst the pandemic. “That’s understandable.”
House told the story while speaking to a room of reporters and district officials who gathered at Parker Elementary School for HISD’s first-day-of-school press conference.
With the district offering full in-person instruction this year, tens of thousands of students returned to classrooms on Monday — some for the first time in almost 18 months. Enhanced safety protocols, including required masking indoors and regular building and bus disinfection, remain in place to help slow the spread of the COVID-19 Delta variant.
In addition to in-person instruction, the district also is offering a virtual learning option this fall for the students too young to be vaccinated (age 11 and under) who meet specific medical requirements.
“Families are looking to us as a school system to be that safe space,” House said as he discussed the importance of following safety protocols and providing safe experiences for all students. “We can assure then that’s exactly what they’ll find.”
Throughout the press conference, House stressed the importance of providing social and emotional support for students, many of whom have been directly impacted by the ongoing pandemic.
To bolster that support, he said, HISD expanded its Wraparound Services department, assigning at least one specialist to almost every campus to help connect students with much needed community resources.
HISD also launched the Pet Assisted Wellness Support — PAWS — program, which uses certified comfort dogs to aid the crisis response team in their work with trauma and mental health issues among students and staff. The program is coordinated jointly by HISD Police and Social and Emotional Learning.
The district also joined with the Souper Bowl of Caring initiative to open 50 emergency food pantries across the district to ensure families have access to food when they’re in need.
“We have a laser sharp focus on academic success,” House said. “But we know students can’t succeed if their basic needs, and the needs of their families, aren’t met.”
As the district continues to battle teacher vacancies, House also noted his decision to redirect teacher-certified central office staff to core content classrooms across the district to ensure no students start the year with substitutes in core classes.
The superintendent also discussed his plan to incentivize vaccines by offering stipends to employees who are vaccinated. Pending Texas Education Agency approval, the effort is designed to protect both teachers and students.
House also asked the community to be on the look out for news about the district’s soon-to-launch 2021-2022 Capital Planning Steering Committee — an independent citizens group tasked with offering feedback and guidance as HISD plans to address almost $5 billion in deferred maintenance.
As he closed his remarks, House reminded the group that despite the challenges, this school year was also full of promise.
“We have the opportunity to be fiercely compassionate while also sparking in our students a renewed love for learning,” House said. “As superintendent, I promise every decision will be based on data and based on the best interest of students and families.”
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