Houston ISD's new superintendent, Millard House II, laid out his top priorities ahead of the 2021-22 school year at a July 7 press conference, including his intention to have 100% of instruction taking place in-person.

House, who spoke following a tour of HISD's Sugar Grove Academy in Sharpstown, said declining State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness results, along with vaccination and coronavirus case trends, all played a role in the determination.

"We need our babies back," said House, whose official first day was July 1. "Our environment is safe, and we want to educate."

As of July 7, the 14-day average for testing positivity in Harris County was 4.3%, down from around 25% at this time last summer. House noted that percentages tend to be lower in school settings across the U.S. when compared to the broader community. Meanwhile, HISD's case count has fallen from around 1,400 in January to 72 in June, he said.

The district will continue to follow cleaning protocols that were put in place during the pandemic and will also work with the Harris County Public Health Department to keep an eye on trends, House said, including any that may be caused by the emerging delta variant. The district's communicable disease team will also be actively monitoring the trends, he said.

"We want to make certain that, moving forward, if there are any major changes in our community spread, that we stay ahead of the game and we inform our community as soon as possible," he said.

With about 52% of Harris County residents vaccinated, House said he expects to see that number continue to rise toward the threshold needed for herd immunity to be achieved—around 70%. Although vaccines are currently only available to people age 12 and older, House referenced trials underway for elementary-aged students that he said could bring vaccines to those age groups this fall. He said HISD would not make vaccination a requirement to attend school in person.

House said his first full week on the job was spent visiting schools and talking to teachers, students and staff. Summer programs are underway across the district, seeking to help approximately 60,000 students catch up on pandemic-related learning losses. Some 274 students are participating in summer school at Sugar Grove, House said, which is one of HISD's Achieve 180 campuses designed to help students in underserved communities.

Other priorities for the next 90 days include re-engaging students to the public education experience and developing a strategic plan that "cements the path of invention and excellence," House said.

House also committed to the district's push to better incorporate equity into policy decisions as a way to close achievement gaps. Part of the puzzle involves finding out what students need at the individual level and coming up with ways to deliver it to them, he said.

Although HISD has not released its plans yet for how it will spend federal relief money meant to help schools deal with pandemic-related loss, House said those plans have been submitted to the state and will be shared in the coming weeks.

Over the next few months, House said he would be hosting community forums with parents and guardians to gather input.

"Only through listening to you all and following up with actions to address the needs and sharing aspirations will we achieve substantial transformation and change in our communities," he said. "I want to hear from all our you, especially those who have not had a seat at the table. I am inviting you."

The 2021-22 school year beings Aug. 23 for HISD.