With planning underway for the 2021-22 school year, Conroe ISD officials are preparing for the future extension of the district's optional virtual instruction offerings, which were first implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the majority of the district's approximately 65,000 students have returned to in-person classes this year, Superintendent Curtis Null said during the CISD board of trustees' March 23 regular meeting that staff members are now working to design a new "Virtual Academy" for those students and families who have expressed a preference for continued remote learning into the future.

Virtual learning had not typically been offered in Texas before the pandemic, but Null said action in this year's state legislative session could clear the way for such programming going forward.

“We have many students, about 11,000 students this year, that are learning remotely. And for many of those families, it’s a system that is working well for them; it is something that they would like us to continue into the future, if possible," Null said. "We have spoken to all of our state representatives and our state senator and expressed how strongly we feel about our ability to continue with virtual learning into the future. We feel confident that the state is going to give us that option."

As a first step in the new academy's development, trustees unanimously approved William Kelly, now Caney Creek High School's associate principal for curriculum, as the virtual school's first principal March 23. Null said Kelly was chosen in part due to his past experience with districtwide academic coordination across multiple grade levels.

“By creating this online campus, I think CISD is showing the state and other districts the importance of changing what we do, not just in the classroom, but as a district, because we really believe we have to meet the needs of all of our students," Kelly said following his appointment. "Offering this online opportunity really is changing what we do as a school district based on what the kids need from us."

Null said additional details on the academy's curriculum, as well as branding, such as an official name, mascot and colors, will be finalized before the next school year.

Trustees also heard an update on the district's plan for its Teacher Incentive Allotment Program. Details on the plan had been shared at recent board meetings and workshops, and officials appeared before trustees this week to present a finalized version ahead of its submission to the Texas Education Agency for approval.

The state-funded incentive program was established through the 2019 passage of House Bill 3 and allows districts to create frameworks aimed at attracting and retaining top educators at hard-to-staff schools, Deputy Superintendent Chris Hines said. Conroe ISD's plan would make three levels of additional pay available to designated teachers who work in eligible subject areas and at campuses with 70% or more economically disadvantaged students.

Trustees unanimously accepted a resolution March 23 supporting the submission of the district's incentive plan to the TEA.

Earlier in their March session, trustees also approved the Hope Huskies mascot and a color scheme of red and black for Hope Elementary School.

The campus, located at 14755 Granger Pines Way, Conroe, is nearing completion this spring and will open to serve students in the Caney Creek feeder zone for the 2021-22 school year.