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Williamson County Recommends Leander ISD Close Schools As COVID-19 Cases Rise; District Says No

The Leander Independent School District's administration building.
Michael Minasi
The Leander Independent School District's administration building.

The Williamson County health district is recommending the Leander school district close its campuses for 10 days after hundreds of students and staff members tested positive for COVID-19 in the first two weeks of school.

In a statement Tuesday, the school district said it will keep schools open for now.

According to Leander ISD’s COVID-19 dashboard, 411 people in the school district have tested positive for the virus since Aug. 5. Whitestone Elementary School, Cedar Park High School, Glenn High School and Leander High School have reported the most cases, with more than 20 confirmed COVID-19 cases each.

In a letter to Leander ISD Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing, Williamson County and Cities Health District medical director Dr. Amanda Norwood said the agency “has grown increasingly concerned” with the spread of the virus in Leander schools in the past week.

Norwood said the amount of COVID spread in the district is about 2.7 times higher than in the surrounding county, noting that several Leander ISD campuses have two or more active case clusters and that 43.4% of the cases are in elementary schools, mostly among students.

“Given known limitations in contact tracing and quarantining, we are concerned that exposed contacts will continue to convert to cases at an alarming rate this week,” she said.

Norwood added that the high number of cases was particularly concerning because only one pediatric intensive care unit bed is currently available in the trauma service area that includes most of Central Texas.

“This level of spread is unsustainable for a school district and for the surrounding county,” she said.

Norwood recommended that the district close its schools for 10 days, implement a universal masking policy with a limited opt-out option, conduct contact tracing on campuses, require quarantines of at least seven days for people who had close contact with someone with COVID-19 and offer virtual learning.

In its statement Tuesday, district officials said they had spoken with the Williamson County health district and the Texas Education Agency about the recommendation to close.

For now, the district will keep its schools open and focus on individual classrooms impacted by clusters of positive cases, the statement said. Whole classrooms at the elementary level may be required to move to a virtual learning setting depending on the severity of the clusters, it said.

"We share the concerns of WCCHD regarding the spread of COVID-19 in our community," the statement said. "At this time, we do not believe a districtwide closure meets the needs of our students and families. While we have some pockets of concern, we also have several campuses with few positive cases."

It added: "We believe responding precisely to individual classrooms instead of whole school closures is our best course of action. We need to keep in-person schools open as long as we can because students depend on essential services, including classroom instruction, food services, and other special programs."

In response to the high number of cases in the first week of school, Gearing put a mask mandate in place last week.

That requires masks for all students, staff and visitors in schools and on buses. Masks are also required during athletics, fine arts and physical education unless students are actively involved in activities. They are not required when eating or outdoors.

“We understand our families and staff feel strongly about masks, individual freedoms, and the health crisis,” a statement from Gearing said. “While there may not be common ground on those issues, we can all agree in-person learning works best for most students. We will do everything we can to stay open and keep our students and staff safe.”

The board of trustees met Monday to discuss whether to back Gearing’s decision. The mask mandate was approved on a 5-2 vote, with board members Aaron Johnson and Elexis Grimes voting against it.

“I appreciate all sides on this issue,” Johnson said. “We're all trying to protect kids. We're also trying to protect individual liberties and parental rights.”

Masks will be required until Sept. 9, when the board will meet again to discuss safety protocols.

Board member Gloria Gonzalez-Dholakia said while there are unknowns with the school year and pandemic, the recommendations of health officials to mask up are known and should be followed.

"They're looking at data and they're not saying that ... this mask is going to cure all or keep us all safe," she said. "But they're telling us it will slow spread, that it will help."

The district began the school year on Aug. 12 without a mandate, but did offer virtual learning for all students with a health-related concern. And that option was further extended to about 2,000 students in kindergarten through sixth grade for the first nine weeks.

Virtual learning enrollment is now closed, as is the waitlist. District leaders are still trying to expand that option to more students in secondary schools, who are on the waitlist.

Alejandro Martínez-Cabrera is an assistant digital editor for KUT.
Allyson Ortegon is a former Williamson County reporter for KUT.
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