LHISD sees increase in COVID cases one week into school year

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By Christian Betancourt

School district officials are closely monitoring the COVID surge, reporting 65 students and 12 employees testing positive as of press time Wednesday, which represents about 1 percent of the staff and student population.

According to case tracking, which is posted on the school district’s website and updated periodically each day, Liberty Hill High School had the most number of cases Wednesday at 18, followed by Liberty Hill Middle School at 15.

“We’re still trying to check and see if there’s any connection with the cases,” said Superintendent Steve Snell. “But remember, on Monday, you report cases from Friday, Saturday and Sunday. So, the daily average has been … 12 to 13 cases a day.”

New guidelines issued this week by the Texas Education Agency (TEA) require schools to report positive COVID-19 cases to anyone who might have been in contact with the person who tested positive — a change from a previous recommendation.

“Even though TEA previously said we did not have to notify parents, we always want to notify parents,” said Snell. “What we did in the past is if there was a COVID positive case anywhere on campus, we had to let every parent on that campus know. This year we will let those parents know through the Dashboard.”

The community can keep track of LHISD positive cases online at https://sites.google.com/libertyhill.txed.net/lhisdcovid2021-22/home.

Snell said parents will receive more targeted notifications from the schools instead of the district if a student with a positive test result comes in contact with their child.

“We think that’s a good plan moving forward,” he said. “It helps our parents make decisions regarding their children a little bit better. As a district, I think we have the power to notify and communicate as much as we want to. We don’t want to overburden our parents with communications. But we want them to know the risk, and we want them to know if their child was exposed during the day.”

If the school mandates students to isolate themselves, Snell said the district would work with parents to make sure students are safe and able to continue their education and deal with the absences.

“The bottom line is we want families to be able to make the best decision for them,” he said. “We want kids who have been exposed or that have symptoms to stay home. So, we don’t want to create rules and regulations that get in the way of that. We’ll do everything we can to work with parents through this process.”

TEA stated no guidelines on face masks would be issued until legal challenges to Texas Governor Greg Abbott’s executive orders are resolved by the courts.

“No mask mandates for students at this time,” said Snell. “We will constantly evaluate the data and daily work with the health department to make the best decisions we can for the district. The data doesn’t lie. And as we watch the numbers, especially inside our district, we might have to make adjustments to our protocols accordingly. Right now, we’re working on being consistent with the current protocols we have and trying to keep kids as safe as possible through those current protocols.”

Snell added that there is no specific number of cases or percentages that will change the protocols at the district level, but rather how instances connect to each other.

“We need to take it case by case and day by day,” said Snell. “We need to see if the cases are related or not related. So far, we’re still seeing community spread, but we’re not seeing in-school spread. Lots of factors have to be taken into consideration. So, there’s not a hard and fast number or percentage — we just monitor it each and every day and debrief at the beginning and end of each day. Masks get a lot of attention, but it’s critical that families and students do that self-monitoring every day, and stay home if they have symptoms. That is the most critical part of everything.”

Snell said the email announcement earlier this week by Bill Burden Elementary Principal Tanya Lambert that she had tested positive for COVID was proper protocol to keep students and their families safe.

Lambert sent the email, which was shared with The Independent, to parents. In the email, she said she is recovering at home.

“I’m not telling you this to fulfill a notification requirement or create panic, but rather to inform you so you can continue to monitor your children,” said Lambert in the email. “I made every effort to wear a mask anytime I was outside my office last week. I understand this notice is unsettling as you place your students in our hands each day, but I also hope you know how much they mean to us and that we are doing all we can to provide a beautiful education to our students during this difficult time.”

The Principal’s case is one of four staff and six students reported at Bill Burden.

“We’re very proud of her,” Snell said. “She followed our COVID protocols. “She’s working from home, which is exactly what we want them to do to make sure that nobody else gets sick based on her exposure. As a district, we will support her campus to make sure they have everything in place to continue to function at full speed.”

The number of students that were in close contact with Lambert was not available, Snell said.

“Ms. Lambert masked up the entire time and kept her distance,” said Snell. “I couldn’t answer (how many kids she came in contact with) with certainty. She’s probably one of our principals who is very consistent with her safety practices.”

The Williamson County and Cities Health District on Wednesday reported 50,434 confirmed cases in the county, 523 deaths, with 396 daily new cases. WCCHD also reports about 64 percent of the eligible population is fully vaccinated, and 76 percent is partially vaccinated. About 9.8 percent of total cases are linked to Liberty Hill’s zip code 78642.

Earlier this week, the US Food and Drug Administration gave full approval for Pfizer-Biontech COVID-19 Vaccine to be used on those 16 years of age or older, a modification from its emergency authorization that allowed it to be used since December 11, 2020.

Staff vaccinations at LHISD will continue to be optional. Snell said he encourages immunizations, but will not require them.

“Right now, we’re doing a good job with the protocols we have,” he said. “Should the data merit changes, we will consider that at that time. As superintendent, I would absolutely encourage anyone who has not had the vaccine to get the vaccine. But what I would really encourage the community and my staff to do is talk to their doctor or health care provider and make the best choice for them and their family. All I can do is look at the data and see that people with vaccines have less severe symptoms than people without the vaccine.”

Snell said the district continues to make adjustments as the first full week of school progresses, and he is hopeful for the remainder of the school year.

“The teachers have been amazing,” he said. “The kids have done a great job, and we look forward to a great school year. Honestly, we’re going to get it done. We’re looking forward to football Friday. The volleyball teams are off to a successful start; tennis, cross country are off to successful starts. We want to do everything we can to make sure kids can participate and have a great school year without interruption. So that’s our goal.”

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