Leander ISD mask requirements sharply divide many

Leander ISD Board President Trish Bode worked hard to keep an often raucous crowd in line during public comments at the August 23rd LISD special meeting to discuss masking requirements.

LISD stays open after health officials push 10-day closure   

Hill Country News

John Graham, LISD’s assistant superintendent of campus activities and support and who has been tasked with the district’s response to the coronavirus, addressed trustees at Monday’s school board meeting. LEANDER ISD’S LIVE STREAM

About 10 minutes into the Leander ISD Board of Trustees special meeting on August 23 about the district’s mask requirements, Board President Trish Bode had to call a recess because members of the public shouted down Superintendent Dr. Bruce Gearing’s update.

Despite about half an hour recess, the break did little to quell the raucous crowd, many of whom loudly protested the district’s decision to require all teachers and students to wear face masks on all campuses and buses.

For over two hours, Trustees heard public opinions about the order, which ranged from many applauding the district’s decision while others excoriated district officials for implementing what they feel is an unfair and useless mandate that defies Gov. Greg Abbott’s executive orders prohibiting school districts from these kinds of mask mandates.

An email the LISD superintendent received right before the meeting added fuel to the challenges of managing the COVID-19 pandemic. 

WCCHD warning

About 10 minutes before the August 23 meeting began, Gearing received an email from the Williamson County and Cities Health District (WCCHD) recommending that he close the entire district for 10 days in order to control what health officials feared was a level of COVID-19 infections that “is unsustainable for a school district and for the surrounding county.”

LISD is in both Williamson and Travis counties.

In the email, which was obtained by the Hill Country News, Dr. Amanda Norwood, medical director, told Gearing that the WCCHD had grown increasingly concerned with the number of cases and rapid spread throughout the district over the previous week.

“The incidence rate of new cases for all of LISD is [about] 135 per 100,000, which is about 2.7 times the amount of spread in the surrounding county,” Norwood said. “Multiple campuses for LISD have two or more active clusters on campus. 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. 43.4% of your cases are occurring in your elementary schools – the vast majority of which are in students. The entire Trauma Service Area that serves Central Texas only has one [pediatric] ICU bed remaining.”

WCCHD spokesperson Deb Strahler confirmed that they have not made similar recommendations to other WilCo school districts because other districts haven’t experienced such an alarming number of cases in such a short time frame.

LISD keeping schools open

LISD sent an email to parents the next day, August 24. The message said that district staff had met with WCCHD and Texas Education Agency officials.

“At this time, we are keeping schools open and focusing on individual classrooms impacted by clusters of positive cases,” the message stated. “It is possible that whole classrooms at the elementary level may be required to access remote conferencing with their teacher.”

LISD will communicate those details directly to impacted staff, teachers, and families. 

“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,” the message stated. “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.”

Cases in Four Points

By August 25, LISD’s dashboard reported 438 cumulative cases since August 5 this year.

As of midweek this week, LISD schools in Four Points have reported 48 positive cases: Vandegrift 13, Canyon Ridge 11, Four Points 9, Grandview Hills 2, Laura W. Bush 0, River Place 2, River Ridge 4, and Steiner Ranch 7. 

By comparison, Round Rock ISD, with an average daily attendance (ADA) of about 50,000, had reported a total of 127 new cases since that district began preparation for school. Georgetown, with an ADA of about 12,000, had reported 36 cases by Monday.

Mask mandate

“From my perspective, I believe our community is hurting right now, and we saw that Monday night,” said Bode. “I don’t think it’s helpful for anyone to be talked down to. It’s about the kids, and I hope we can maintain that focus as a community.”

Following the public comments, trustees retired into an hour-long closed session.

When they returned, Trustee Aaron Johnson moved that the board direct Gearing to rescind the mask mandate. That motion failed on a 5-2 vote, with Trustee Elexis Grimes joining Johnson’s vote.

Trustee Gloria Gonzales-Dholakia moved a resolution to direct Gearing to keep the mandate in place. That vote passed 5-2, with Johnson and Grimes voting against it.

Trustees also unanimously approved eight days of paid, coronavirus leave for staff members who test positive.

The board is scheduled to revisit the masking requirements on Sept. 9 and consider whether to end or extend it at that point. 

Josh Moniz contributed to this report.

Mask protest

Last week on August 18, after Leander ISD Superintendent Bruce Gearing made the call to temporarily mandate masks at LISD, a group of about 50 people protested in front of the LISD administration building.

Marci Watson, the organizer of WilCo We The People, waved a Christian flag throughout the protest, which she had pulled together at the last minute the day after the district’s announcement.

She argued Gov. Greg Abbott’s order was the final legal authority on the issue and that the district needed to respect the law. She said she has been talking with district parents who have warned the district that they will file lawsuits if the order is enforced with their children.

“You fight this by standing up for your constitutional rights. My motto is ‘You stand up, you show up and you speak up.’ to fight for your rights,” Watson said. “We believe you have a right to wear your mask. I have a right to not wear one…We are not going to live in masks for the rest of our lives. Faith over fear.”

When asked about the concerns of other parents who are legally required to send their children to school but fear a lack of unified policy could put their children’s safety at risk, Watson asserted it was families’ responsibility to make a choice if they have at-risk children, arguing they could choose to homeschool or send their children to a different school.

“Let them get sick. They get the flu, they get the common cold, they get this virus. Let them get over it, let them build up their immune system, let them have the antibodies and let them carry on with their lives without living in fear,” Watson said.

Leander resident Crystal Clendennen and her 6th grader son Draiden attended the protest maskless with signs reading “Masks Don’t Work” and “I will not set the example to my child that it is okay to disregard the rule of law. Let GA-38 Stand.”

“I don’t believe (LISD) has the right to supersede the Governor’s order… My third grader also has a speech impediment and it’s important for him to be able to see people when they’re speaking to him, see how they pronounce things,” Clendennen said. 

She said her child had been frustrated by how face masks have made it difficult for him to understand people, so she felt compelled to “stand up for her children.”