LHISD set to return to classrooms Aug. 27

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By MIKE EDDLEMAN

School districts all across Texas have wrestled with the decision about when to return to the classroom. Some have chosen to begin with up to a month of virtual learning before opening their doors, others did so at the earliest opportunity.

Leaders in Liberty Hill ISD watched and they listened, but the most important thing they did was make a decision based on data.

“We watch the data every single day. We watch the news and we talk to Texas Education Agency at least once a day, and then we talk to our county health authority,” said LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell. “Like with every decision, we look at as much data as possible. At the end of the day, we felt the data from Williamson County, especially the zip codes that affect our school district, warrant at least the choice of a return to school.”

Feedback from families and the community was important to the district, but health and safety was the deciding factor in every decision about returning to school.

“Parent and family desires is a part of that, but they don’t override health concerns,” Snell said. “Our staff wanting to come back, our kids wanting to come back, our parents wanting to come back is all important and it definitely weighs in how we’re going to facilitate learning, but it doesn’t override those health concerns.”

Liberty Hill will not delay the on-campus instruction option for families into September like other area districts, choosing instead to delay school for everyone one week, and focus on making sure that whether it is virtual or in the classroom, that students get the education they need.

Snell said it is helpful to delay one week to give the staff time to plan as teachers return.

“Just to delay school three weeks, I didn’t think the data showed that was a viable option,” he said. “In talking to health authorities, the numbers are so fluid that we felt that in our community we can safely get our staff and kids in, get them educated and get them home without spreading the virus. We didn’t feel a week here or week there would make the difference.”

What Snell is convinced will make a difference is adherence to the district’s safety protocols as students return, from wearing a mask to social distancing and beyond.

“All the safety precautions that go along with that have to take place,” he said. “Going back to school and not having safety plans in place is not an option. We will do every safety thing you can imagine, including wearing a mask, and that’s going to be the standard, it’s not something we can excuse or ignore.”

The political firestorm swirling around so many of the mandated safety measures is something the district is definitely aware of, but Snell refuses to let those issues come first.

“We know those safety precautions don’t make everybody happy, and they’ve definitely been a conversation piece among parents, but I think one of our bigger challenges is that politics has overridden what our health officials are saying,” Snell said. “Then there’s politics in what our health officials are saying. Trying to decipher actual research studies versus people’s opinions has been very difficult.”

In addition to following all precautions while on campus, Snell said it is equally important that people in the Liberty Hill community practice them everywhere.

“We’ve got to continue to behave responsibly outside of school in order for our plans to be truly successful, and that’s a difficult thing because we obviously cannot control what happens outside the school,” Snell said. “Keeping yourself at a low risk is as critical when you’re not in school as it is when you’re in school.”

He knows that all the new expectations with COVID-19 are wearing thin for many people.

“The problem now is we’re getting a little of what is called COVID fatigue, and people are going back to work,” Snell said. “The eye test is when you drive around the community it seems like a lot of people are back to normal and my message is we can’t let our guard down. We have to be diligent. We have to be consistent examples of healthy behavior to continue to keep the virus down.”

That proud culture of being tough, and fighting through illness is also something that people need to set aside for the time being.

“We’ve got to reverse that trend and get people to stay at home if they have any symptoms whatsoever,” Snell said. “They’ve got to stay home and make sure they’re not a carrier.
The whole community has to follow those guidelines for our plan to be successful. If they don’t and there’s an outbreak, we might have to reverse course and send people home for a while. If the data in Liberty Hill ISD gets to a point where we don’t think it’s safe anymore, we will make the call possibly to halt our plans.”

The question each family has to answer for itself is how best to balance safety and the educational experience, and Snell knows there is not an easy answer.

“In person school is going to be different. In person school is going to have restrictions and it might not be the consistent model that it’s always been,” he said. “We don’t know when we’re going to have to shut down. At home can be a consistent model, but you have to weigh that risk, is that the best way for your kid to learn? There are lots of questions families need to sit down and talk about as they decide what’s best.”

But he added that no matter what choice families have made, the district is dedicated to making it work.

“We’re going to do everything we can to keep them as safe as possible in our schools just like we did before the virus,” Snell said. “None of our plans are perfect and we know that, but we’re going to try to be perfect and try to be consistent. We’re asking the community for grace, we’re asking to be partners, to communicate, but we’re going to do our very best – whether you send your child in person or decide at home learning is best – that you get a quality education from Liberty Hill ISD.”

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