Comal ISD officials on Wednesday defended the school board’s Tuesday night decision allowing students and staffers the option of wearing COVID-19 preventive masks at district facilities.
Parents and teachers were notified via e-mail Tuesday night by Board President David Drastata of the 5-2 vote — opposed by Trustees Tim Hennessee and Russ Garner — that the decision would go into effect Wednesday, the date specified in Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s order.
After reviewing a presentation of past COVID-19 data that illustrated spikes in cases following holiday periods, trustees opted to immediately implement changes before spring break, which begins Friday.
“Our thing has always been about giving parents a choice throughout the school year. This decision is based on giving parents the choice over whether or not to allow their students to wear masks,” said Steve Stanford, the district’s communications director, who spent most of Wednesday explaining the rationale behind the board’s decision that ran against staffers and parents who believe it was reckless and given without ample notice.
Comal ISD parent Katherine McLane, who has children attending Hoffman Lane Elementary School and Church Hill Middle School, said she did not receive the district’s email and found out through the Herald-Zeitung’s online story Wednesday morning.
“My immediate concern was not having enough time to adjust to the change,” she said. “Having a policy change such as this happen literally overnight, without any ability to ask questions, figure out alternative plans or make accommodations seemed like a big departure for a district that has been so transparent, so communicative and so good at reassuring families throughout the school year.
“It was very shocking and very surprising.”
Stanford said the announcement wasn’t botched, but timed to coincide with the governor’s latest orders.
“The governor last week announced that the mask mandate was over in Texas and we heard from a lot of parents who were going to base their decisions on that,” he said. “Throughout the entire school year, the district has been all about giving parents that choice and having protocols in place.
“We’ve heard from both sides — from people concerned about the decision as well those appreciative of that choice.”
Comal ISD’s special board meeting began with a presentation by Superintendent Andrew Kim and Ruby Moseley, the district’s new executive director of safety and security.
It illustrated highs and lows of the district’s COVID-19 exposures and illnesses, with most occurring following Halloween (Oct. 29-Nov. 13), Thanksgiving (Nov. 17-Dec. 11) and Christmas/New Year’s (Dec. 16-Jan. 16) holidays.
Of 2,195 exposures involving staffers and students, five staffers and 32 students developed coronavirus symptoms, with 17 traced to no-mask extracurricular activities; 15 to classrooms two to school cafeterias and five to unknown sources.
Moseley and Kim recommended delaying changes to the district’s COVID-19 prevention handbook — governing masks, quarantines and vaccines — until March 29.
“Most of the principals I spoke with would prefer to wear masks,” Kim said, “So would most of the teachers, who said they wanted to protect their colleagues.”
Trustee Jason York outlined the district’s COVID-19 theme of allowing parents choices over teaching their students at home or on campuses and trustee Cody Mueller feared another spike in cases when students returned from break two weeks from now.
A combination of both led to the final decision, countered by arguments from Hennessee and Garner, who wanted a little longer — with Garner saying at least until staffers are vaccinated.
“I’m pretty passionate about this,” Hennessee said. “A mask provides the bubble that protects us — not just from the virus but from other (diseases) like the flu. I went to all six campuses (in my district) and 75% were for continuing to wear the masks.”
In January, trustees praised the district’s COVID-19 response. Drastata recalled last July, when Comal ISD was the area’s first to commit to on-campus learning in the fall.
“This district forged ahead, knowing that it was the most important thing for our students,” he said two months ago. “That’s the one point that drives (decisions by our board and (central) leadership teams, and the data clearly shows we’ve done that.”
Drastata’s latest letter said that success “can be directly attributed” to health and safety protocols, daily health screenings, practicing social distancing and urging good hygiene practices, and, wearing face coverings.
“That said, we are also about giving parents choice,” he said. “To that end, the (district) has amended our health and safety guidelines to allow parent and teacher choice with regards to face coverings effective March 10.”
Stanford said the board made its decision without consultations with epidemiologists or other medical professionals.
“We still emphasize and encourage the use of masks while on campus,” he said. “Parents have the option to send their kids to school wearing masks, and we encourage that. So again, it’s giving parents that choice.”
Stanford said those choosing to do so can immediately place their students in remote learning.
“It’s still an option for families who feel that is the best environment for their students,” he said.
Little time to prepare
Overall reaction from teachers, especially those on campuses, was against the board action.
One teacher, who has a daughter attending Smithson Valley High School and a husband also employed by the district, had plenty to say.
“I didn’t mind meeting in person, as long as we were wearing masks,” she said. “I thought that was the social contract we had made with the board.
“The health of kids is very important, but to take (masks) away three days before spring break, to take away that sense of safety, made my stomach sick.”
The teacher, who declined to be identified, said her daughter was so afraid she had called wanting to come home from school Wednesday morning. She recalled one trustee had reached out to gauge teacher reaction after Abbott’s March 5 announcement, and the district didn’t email teachers as it usually does when scheduling a special trustees meeting.
“We didn’t think anything of it because we knew they would make the right call,” she said.
“Why would we change a mask mandate when the numbers are the same now as they were back in October?”
The district’s move runs counter to steps others have taken as the COVID-19 pandemic reaches its one year mark locally, including neighboring New Braunfels ISD, which opted to keep the mask policy in place for the rest of the school year, and the city of New Braunfels, which is keeping it in place for city facilities.
Comal ISD, it appears, is hoping persuasion will do the same job as the previous rules.
“We know that many of you have already made a decision for your child regarding this issue, and we respect your decision,” Drastata wrote. “However, for those who are still debating as to whether or not to mask or unmask, please strongly consider following the health and safety protocols as we have been doing all year and help us create a safe and healthy environment for teachers, staff and students.”
Stanford said district will continue to emphasize social distancing that maximizes available space and address capacity limits at each campus or facility,
“While the choice to wear a face mask is now up to you, please note that quarantine protocols will still be in effect,” Drastata’s letter said. “As such, we strongly recommend the continued use of face coverings to protect our teachers and staff, and your child’s opportunity to participate in spring sports, fine arts, prom, and potentially graduation.”
Stanford said the changes would be posted on the district website before spring break.
Stanford said if one student in a classroom tests positive, other students without masks will be quarantined. He said exposures of those after two weeks of receiving both doses of the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine will not be required to quarantine.
Stanford said approximately 90% of the staff members estimated to want vaccines, roughly 2,000 of 3,100 overall, would have their first doses before the end of this week.
But the teachers had little notice before the board action -— Kim told trustees he briefed school principals Tuesday morning — and suspicions have been raised among some teachers.
“They got us the vaccines. Most of us got only one dose and those with two need two weeks before it kicks in,” she said. “It makes me wonder — did they get us the (vaccines) so we would be protected, or because they were already planning to send us into (classrooms) with students without masks?”
Remote learning option
Stanford said the district anticipates no additional changes to COVID-19 protocols unless additional guidelines are issued by the Texas Education Agency, which gave school districts latitude in shaping individual guidelines following Abbott’s announcement.
“All year long, since the beginning of school, our process has been that students can go from on campus to remote learning at any time, which still holds true today,” Stanford said, adding 80% of district students attend classes on campuses.
“Students (transitioning) from remote learning to on-campus learning were offered the option at specific times during the year, at the beginning of each grading period, which gave them the option of coming back onto campus,” he said. “But we are actually opening up that (process) again today, with the deadline ending on March 22, the Monday after spring break.”
Stanford said there was little time to inform parents or staffers ahead of Tuesday’s meeting, which had to post notice on Friday to meet Open Meeting Act requirements.
“It was the earliest we could schedule a meeting after the governor’s announcement, and the board wanted to discuss this prior to when the governor’s order was lifted,” he said, adding there was no time to survey parents, similar to New Braunfels ISD’s last weekend that indicated a preference for its staffers and students to continue wearing masks the rest of the school year.
“The big thing is that we want to encourage wearing the mask,” Stanford said.
Comal ISD trustees meet again Thursday night in a board training session and will hold their regularly scheduled March meeting at 6 p.m. Thursday, March 25.
“Like a lot of other families in Comal ISD, I’m wondering why on Earth they are making these changes now — when vaccinations are starting to begin some sort of stability,” McLane said. “We have to look at the kinds of accommodations (the district has), no one has given us instruction on switching to virtual instruction this late in the school year — we have a lot of homework to do.”
Staff photographer Mikala Compton contributed to this report