Classes at Magnolia ISD have been back in session since Aug. 11 with increased enrollment. As of Oct. 11, there were 537 more students than the same time last year, according to data provided by the district.

In addition to more students, the district hired additional staff to mitigate potential learning losses experienced from virtual learning during the COVID-19 pandemic. MISD hired 38 employees using federal Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief funds to help in areas such as special education and to reduce class sizes, Community Impact Newspaper previously reported.

In an interview with Community Impact Newspaper, MISD Superintendent Todd Stephens provided an update on the academic year, including the potential future of virtual learning and how the district has been affected by staffing shortages.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How has the academic year gone so far as we continue to move forward from COVID-19?

I’m very optimistic about it. We’re kind of getting back to a normal routine and we’re beginning to to focus a lot more on the nuances of the academic part of some of the things. [I am] not saying that we left those things behind, but I think it was just a lot more focus on the structure and some of those other issues [during virtual learning]. We’ve experienced a lot of growth, which I think adds to some of that optimism. Growth always brings some challenges we’re having to look at. We’ve had a little over 500 new kids this year; that’s about 4% growth. I am very optimistic about the start of this year and focusing on making up any potential learning losses that we may have had during online sessions. We can remedy some of that now and get kids back to some learning baselines and be able to start moving forward from that. That seems to be a lot of the focus of this year.

How has the district been helping students move forward from potential learning losses?

We’ve got a lot of things that are happening outside of the regularly scheduled school day. They have readjusted a lot of the time in the day and they move those kids into different groups and they regroup them. They’re doing some fairly intensive work to help those kids regain any potential learning loss and move them up. It is targeted by some of that. I think [Chief Academic Officer] Dr. Garza has done a great job in working with our principals and finding new and unique ways to be able to do that so we haven’t had to blow up the day completely. I think it was a wise decision that we had to specifically focus on ensuring that some of those kids that were some of the most vulnerable to [learning loss] had options and times to stop and catch back up so they just weren’t thrown into the classroom.

What is the current status of virtual learning in the district?

The state is not funding any of the virtual learning. It was fraught with problems. It just needed a lot more refinement even from the state part and district part of what we’re trying to accomplish and the structures behind it, and I don’t think we quite got there. I know there were some kids that were successful, but those are the kids who are going to be successful whether it's face to face or not. We do not have a virtual component at all, like the majority of districts in the state.

We feel like in-person [learning] is the gold standard and there’s so many things that get lost in [virtual learning]. If the state continues—and it does sound like there is a lot of interest from the state level—to keep finding unique ways to serve kids and parents virtually, and if they keep giving us pathways for that and we look at some ways that the dollars may follow, I think we may certainly explore those. We wouldn’t let those opportunities go by without exploring it.

Has the district been facing any staffing shortages?

From the teaching standpoint—and I think we may be in a little bit better situation than some other districts—we have done everything possible to try to make Magnolia ISD a preferred destination for teachers. In the Houston area, it's a little bit of an arms race in salary, but we’ve been able to try to stay ahead of that curve. I think it will become a challenge for all districts in the new funding system to find new and additional dollars to continue to keep moving teachers’ salaries ahead to try to keep people in that profession.

Everyone is experiencing shortages, I just don’t know if we’re as far out on a limb as maybe some other surrounding districts and other places. We do have shortages in critical areas in the math and science areas. A great chemistry teacher and physics people are just hard to find, [as well as] the foreign language people and our bilingual staff. With growth, we’ve had some situations where we rolled up to [a] 22-to-one [student-to-teacher] ratio. When you start scouting around the landscape for teachers looking for a job, there aren’t many.

We’ve had a lot of people resigning their teaching positions during the school year all across the state. It’s been absolutely an anomaly the last two years on how many resignations we’ve had for one million and one reasons. We’ve had a lot of people who, once they hit that ability to retire, they have chosen to retire. It just adds to some of the challenges we’ve had.

[We also have] custodial and bus driver [shortages]. We’re trying to mitigate that by looking at the salary part of it. Sometimes it's discretionary dollars that we don’t have a lot of to make a difference to find those people. It’s been a challenge in both custodial services and our bus driving parts to keep people there but we tried to be as lean as possible. I know a few years back we paired down the number of [bus] stops that we made. We’re doing the same thing in custodial. We’re bringing in some outside consultants to help us be efficient in our cleaning. Maybe we can reconfigure the way we put our people together and clean more efficiently. The nighttime is where we really struggle with some of that. Our buses do run and we do get kids there on time.