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Parents react after Leander ISD decided to keep campuses open during COVID-19 surge

On Tuesday, the Williamson County and Cities Health District recommended a 10-day closing to slow the spread of the virus.

LEANDER, Texas — Hundreds of parents in the Leander Independent School District want school officials to listen to medical experts. Parents like Katia Hagen.

"We do not like the response of how the district is handling this health crisis," she said.

The mother of three is keeping her school-aged children at home for virtual learning, a program that is nine weeks long.

Hagen belongs to Families United for the Student Safety, or FUSS. 

The group is fighting for LISD to follow the Williamson County and Cities Health District's recommendation to close for 10 days to slow the spread of COVID-19. 

Aarti Ondhia is also a member. She said they also want a stricter mask mandate because lives are at stake.

"We know people who have died from it. And it's not just talking about vulnerable people. They were healthy people who have also been impacted," she said.

FUSS is also concerned that the school district does not offer a virtual option during school board meetings. Hagen said she has reached out to several trustees about her concerns and with the exception of one automated email response, she hasn't heard from anyone.  

On Tuesday, public health officials with Williamson County recommended that Leander ISD close for several days in order to stop the spread of COVID-19 on campuses.

In Leander, the school district has reported more than 350 coronavirus cases since last week. During a three-day period from Aug. 21-23, the district had 132 positive cases.

The health officials reportedly warned district leaders that the level of spread has reached an alarming rate. County officials have said that they recommend the district close schools for 10 days in order to bring the spread under control.

The medical director for the Williamson County and Cities Health District gave the recommendation in an email to Leander ISD's superintendent. She said the agency has "grown increasingly concerned."

"The incidence rate of new cases for all of LISD is ~135 per 100k, which is about 2.7 times the amount of spread in the surrounding county," said Amanda Norwood. "Multiple campuses for LISD have two or more active clusters on campus."

She said that 43.4% of COVID-19 cases in Leander ISD are happening in elementary schools, and the district's chief communications officer confirmed. 

"We're concerned about every student contacting a serious illness, but particularly our elementary school students, because they don't have as many options as our older students due to the lack of availability of a pediatric vaccine," said Corey Ryan.  

"This level of spread is unsustainable for a school district and for the surrounding county," Norwood added.

For now, Leander ISD has opted to focus on classrooms with a high amount of spread. 

"We have some schools that haven't had any cases and we've had some schools that have only had a few cases," Ryan said. "We didn't feel like a district-wide approach was in the best interest of the most amount of students."

The medical director has recommended that the school district implement the following as campuses close for 10 days:

  • Universal masking policy that limits op outs to only those with medical exemption
  • Robust contact tracing on your campuses
  • Required quarantine for at least 7 days (preferably 10-14 days) for identified close contacts
  • Virtual options for your students who are unable to be vaccinated

"We are keeping schools open and focusing on individual classrooms impacted by clusters of positive cases," Leander ISD said in a letter to parents. "It is possible that whole classrooms at the elementary level may be required to access remote conferencing with their teacher. We will communicate those details directly to impacted staff, teachers and families."

The district said that if cases continue to rise, the district may need to close multiple classrooms and whole schools.

"Every day we're looking at what we're doing, what's working, what's not working," Ryan said. "We've been making changes and adjustments to our health protocols for the last three weeks because our goal all along has been to stay open for in-person learning."

Leander ISD parent Sarah Ripple said she wished the district had listened to the recommendations from health leaders. 

"I was hoping that it would really open their eyes to the situation that Leander ISD is in," said Ripple. "I know that we're having issues all across Texas, but I think it's pretty astounding that this quickly and this large of a district has been recommended by the health department to shut down."

Meanwhile, in Austin ISD, 103 students and teachers have tested positive since school started a week ago. There are about 85,000 students and staff at Austin ISD, so that positivity rate is about 0.1%.

On Monday night, the Leander ISD board approved a mask mandate through at least Sept. 9, after a group of parents, students and teachers gathered in the Austin suburb earlier in the day to ask school leaders to extend a mask mandate.


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