AUSTIN (KXAN) — Austin ISD Interim Superintendent Dr. Anthony Mays is kicking off the school year with a lot on his plate.

His first school year at the district’s helm comes as enrollment has dropped, staffing issues plague schools, parents worry about school safety and as a global pandemic persists.

Dr. Mays talked with KXAN’s Tom Miller about navigating those challenges while hoping this school year feels more like normal.

The interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Tom: This is your first year in charge, but you’ve been with the district for a while. With that in mind, what are you focusing on as we kick off the school year?

Dr. Mays: Priority is always student achievement. We want to make sure that we continue to focus on supporting students and supporting teachers, we’re doing everything that we need to make sure our students are successful. In light of Uvalde, we have safety and security top of mind in terms of how we open up our buildings, and how we make sure that students and staff are well taken care of and safe. In addition to that, climate and culture. We are on the heels of a pandemic, not quite entirely over the pandemic, still seeing residue and watching the impact. So those are the three areas that we’re focused on.

Tom: Let’s focus on school safety. You have a new police chief this school year. My question is: How well prepared are you to proactively prevent an emergency on campus and then respond to one if it does happen?

Dr. Mays: I feel really good, especially with our new chief of police. His background is in mental health. We know that’s part of the root cause that we see in a lot of these school shootings, the mental health of our students or the mental health of our community. So really being focused on being proactive and making sure that students are taken care of, as well as families are taken care of. In terms of hardening campuses, we want to make sure that our schools don’t mirror prisons. We also want to make sure that students and faculty within those buildings are safe. We’ve had a significant investment from our 2017 bond within our schools. You can’t just walk up to a building and walk into our schools. You actually have to badge in. Each principal recently completed safety audits throughout their building. So we’re in the process of going and adjusting and addressing any repairs that need to be addressed throughout our system.

Tom: When it comes to enrollment, it’s been declining for a while. How concerned are you about that? And is there a plan to boost enrollment?

Dr. Mays: So of course we’re concerned about enrollment because it’s a form of revenue for our district. We’ve been able to kind of flatten the decrease and so we’re hoping that we can kind of stay right there. Families now have significant choices available to them as they look at school. We want to make sure that we offer creative programming that families want to see and that we have inviting campuses where parents feel like they’re a part of a learning community — and that the outcomes within those campuses are high because families are making those choices based on what’s going to help my baby be successful.

Tom: You still have a lot of teacher vacancies that you’re trying to fill and other staffing vacancies you’re trying to fill. What’s the plan to get up to speed with hiring? And can you promise parents that these classrooms aren’t going to be too crowded?

Dr. Mays: That’s a tough one. We’re all facing these teacher shortages. I’m happy that we’ve been pretty strong on retention. Better than the state, better than our region. But we’re still going to be challenged when we open up our doors. We don’t want overcrowded classrooms causing safety issues. That’s something that we’re working hard at now. In some instances, positions that were formerly teacher-coaches or instructional coaches may have to go in to support the needs that are taking place right there in the classroom. We’re still actively recruiting out there. It’s very competitive, every district is struggling.

Tom: We’re heading into a school year where we still have the pandemic going on, you have this monkeypox situation going on. Are there plans for student health safety?

Dr. Mays: We don’t offer the virtual learning option at this point. Virtual learning or online learning kind of exacerbated some of the gaps that we see within student learning. As we utilize some of the learnings from COVID-19, and some of the safety precautions that we were able to stand up, I think we’re gonna be okay. We’re getting to the place where we’re going to start putting out communication on monkeypox because we recognize it as a real thing that’s something, that’s scary for families.

Tom: What are you excited about heading into the school year? And what do you want your families to be excited about?

Dr. Mays: You’re super excited by students hopefully having what will be closer to normal year. I’ve gone to several community events where I mean, they’re just crowded. And so you can see that families and students are excited about coming back to school in a way that they probably were not last year with the anxiety that existed. What brings me a lot of joy and excitement is that sense of normalcy: field trips, going out, students being able to play with each other, students being able to collaborate, adults being able to socialize. That’s what excites me.