Rise in COVID cases forces closure of Liberty Hill Middle School

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By Christian Betancourt

As COVID-19 cases increase in Liberty Hill, the school district announced today the temporary closure of Liberty Hill Middle School, four classrooms at Bill Burden Elementary, and one at Louine Noble Elementary. Students will learn from home until Sept. 10.

“Unfortunately, we’re continuing to see a large spike in COVID cases and uncontrolled spread in some of our classrooms and some of our campuses,” LHISD Superintendent Steve Snell said Thursday, prior to today’s announcement of LHMS closure. “We’ve reached the point that to slow the spreads and help mitigate this virus, we’re having to close some classrooms and even a grade level.”

According to the district’s online COVID dashboard, which tracks cases in the schools, there have been 367 student cases reported and 57 from staff Friday at 2 p.m. The majority are from Liberty Hill Middle school with 109 students and seven staff, followed by Bill Burden Elementary with 45 students and three staff. Louine Noble shows 24 students and eight staff.

“Our numbers are high (at LHMS),” said Snell. “We’re concerned. We’re watching it and strongly encouraging mask-wearing and even more strongly encouraging families to stay home if their child has any symptoms whatsoever.”

An update to the LHISD website stated family members of a positive person are encouraged to quarantine for 14 days, and the absence would be coded as Q for quarantine.

If four or more positive cases are reported in a classroom, Snell said learning would move to remote conferencing, a method that provides the district funding for up to 20 days of virtual education per student.

“Their own teacher can teach them remote conferencing,” he said. “That way, even though their routines are interrupted, the learning won’t stop, and they can continue to get instruction from their classroom teacher.

According to Snell, if Governor Greg Abbott approves Senate Bill 15, it would allow the schools to offer virtual learning for about 10 percent of the student population. Currently, LHISD students wanting to receive remote education had to drop out of school.

“Last year, we started the year with 40 percent of our elementary students remote, and we ended the year with less than 10 percent,” he said. “Remote is not an option for everybody. It requires a commitment from the family, especially for those young kids. It’s not an option that a lot of families can do when they have to work. We’re glad that it’s a choice, especially when cases are so hot in our community.”

Florence ISD and Leander ISD have implemented mask mandates, while Georgetown ISD continues to make masks optional. Mask-wearing at LHISD remains voluntary. Snell said he’s heard arguments both for and against mandatory mask-wearing but would continue following Abbott’s Executive Order GA-38 when it came to masks mandates.

“Right now, we’re not considering a mask mandate,” he said. “GA-38 is still the law of the land. It’s interesting when you read GA-38, our Governor is encouraging mask-wearing. We’re encouraging mask-wearing. We’re going to do everything we can within the boundaries of the law to keep our kids as safe as possible. I think that at the end of the day, everybody in our community wants their kids to be safe. We want everyone to know the current data so they can make the best decision possible for their child.”

Snell said the district would increase cleaning of classrooms, fogging during transitions, and sanitation of large common areas throughout the day.

“There is one more thing you can do,” he said. “This is an ask from the Superintendent and not a mandate. Please, if at all possible, we’re asking you to wear masks while we get through this time of the high COVID spike.”

The data, according to Snell, shows new strains of COVID-19 significantly affecting the community.

“Right now, we’re dealing with the virus that’s exponentially more contagious than it was a year ago, and it’s in our community,” he said. “I think the positivity rate of new infections on Williamson County was up 80 percent (Thursday). It’s not just in schools. It’s everywhere in our community. We just want to inform our community with what we see daily and give them as much information as they need to make the best decision for their family.”

The Williamson County and Cities Health District reported 54,620 COVID cases in the county at 2 p.m. Friday, 556 deaths with 395 daily new cases. WCCHD also reports about 66.15 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, and 76 is partially vaccinated. About 11.1 percent of total cases are linked to Liberty Hill’s zip code 78642.

Snell said officials within the district look at data and meet throughout the day to decide how to move forward while evaluating possible closures within the schools.

“There are lots of things that go through our mind,” he said. “Number one, we want every single child and staff member to be safe. Safety is paramount to everything, but also, we’re worried about everybody’s mental health. Our communities all across the state and nation are on edge with everything that’s going on with COVID, with masks, hurricanes, wildfires, and with what’s going on overseas. We want schools to be a consistent and a safe place for kids to come and learn and not have that learning interrupted.”

He added he needed the community’s help to have a successful school year.

“We don’t want to close classrooms or grade levels, but sometimes the spread is too high,” said Snell. “We’re doing everything we can to have a consistent school year and do everything we can to stop the spread of this virus, but we can’t do it alone. It takes the entire community to help us in this process. The number one thing is that if you or your family have been exposed, or any member of your family has COVID to monitor and consider keeping them home, so we don’t bring that disease into our school buildings.”

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