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'Separation over our own safety' - Comal ISD board gets earful from parents, students over mask policy

“Not only have the schools been made unsafe, but they are now divided,” Courtney Schulze, a junior at Canyon High School, told trustees during the meeting. “The school talks about community and being together as Canyon Nation, but how can you say that when you have caused separation over our own safety? And you cannot say there isn’t division when you can see it in this room right now.”

On’Giving parents choice’ - Comal ISD’s board votes to make masks optional after governor drops mandate

Those in the audience sat or stood on opposite sides of the room depending on their stance regarding masks, with most not wearing them. Some held signs that read, “My child, my choice,” or, on the other side of the room, “Love thy neighbor. Wear a mask.”

The board’s decision came one week after Gov. Greg Abbott announced he was lifting the statewide mask mandate and several days after TEA said school boards could vote to shirk mask requirements as vaccinations slowly ramped up. New coronavirus infections continue in the community, albeit at lower rates than at other points in the pandemic.

After the vote, board president David Drastata said in a letter to parents that despite the proven efficacy of safety protocols such as mask wearing and physical distancing in keeping the virus from spreading on campuses, the board is “also about giving parents choice.” Masks had been required since the start of the school year.

“I appreciate that this decision recognizes that I, as a parent, am best equipped to make health and safety decisions for my child,” parent Emily Pauly told board members Thursday. “I believe that the students in Comal ISD have benefited from the decision to offer both in-person and remote learning, and I’m glad that we now have the opportunity to weigh the benefits versus risks for masks as well.”

The revised mask policy, announced less than 12 hours before it took effect at the start of the next school day, brought an immediate backlash from district parents and employees who said the decision, made without a chance for their input, left them blindsided and betrayed.

On’They didn’t have a voice’ - Comal ISD decision to make masks optional sparks protest

One parent launched an online petition that night asking board members to reconsider. By Thursday, it had about 2, signatures. About have signed a petition created around the same time to show support for the board’s decision.

Olivia Weisinger, a former district parent who started home-schooling her children in August and runs the Open Comal County Schools Safely Facebook page, worked with Comal ISD middle school teacher and parent Kate Fraser to survey district parents and employees about the board vote. The questionnaire was posted on social media and distributed on flyers with a scannable QR code, Fraser said.

About 77 percent of parents and 89 percent of employees among the respondents said they favored having a mask requirement in place through the end of the school year. About 15 percent of all respondents said they wanted parents to have a choice.

Trustee Tim Hennessee, who with Trustee Russell S. Garner voted against changing the mask policy, said he had asked administrators at all six of the campuses in the district he represents for their staff’s preferences regarding masks. At each campus, he said, at least 75 percent of staff said they wanted to keep the mask requirement.

The board of neighboring New Braunfels ISD voted March 8 to keep the district’s mask requirement until the end of the school year. The district had sent out a survey and found that 70 percent of parents and 78 percent of employees said they wanted to keep the existing policy.

Hennessee, Drastata and board secretary Michelle Ross are up for re-election in May.

At Thursday’s board meeting and on social media, parents expressed frustration that giving people the choice to not wear a mask came at the expense of other parents’ ability to choose to put their children in in-person learning, which is more effective for many students.

“My son with special needs does not have that choice anymore,” said Amy Brown, because he is five times more at risk for complications from COVID than the general population. “For children in the special education department, it’s a choice between a free and appropriate public education and their lives.”

About 80 percent of the district’s students are learning in person, and any family can choose to switch their student to remote learning at any time. But teachers and staff don’t have much of a choice.

Dora Rodriguez, a teacher with a son in high school, told trustees she considered quitting her job to protect people she comes in contact with regularly, such as her sister, but will stay at the district at least through the end of the school year “because I love the kids too much.”

“This is not about the health of people who can survive the virus; it’s about spreading it to our loved ones,” Rodriguez said. “I should really feel confident that my district would keep me safe, but right now I don’t feel confident at all.”

Those in favor of removing the mask mandate thanked board members for giving them the choice. One student and a mother said wearing masks had been a source of anxiety. Some parents repeated debunked conspiracy theories about mask usage and the coronavirus itself.

Comal ISD has more than 25, students and is one of the fastest-growing school districts in the region. On Thursday, it had 39 active coronavirus cases, according to the district’s website — three fewer than it did when trustees dropped the mask requirement. Comal County had active cases overall Thursday, down from two weeks ago.

Parents and teachers had criticized board actions in August that opened schools for in-person instruction for families that wanted it as early as the first day of the school calendar — weeks before other districts in the area — and again when Drastata called the coronavirus the “China virus” in an email to some parents.

On, teachers protest Comal ISD’s plans to open schools Aug. 25, but board stands firm

About 15 students opposed to the more lax mask rules protested outside Canyon High School two days after the board vote, calling on trustees to reconsider. They were countered by four students who said they supported the board’s decision.

Ben Toalson, who has six children learning in-person in Comal ISD schools, said Trustee Marty Bartlett on Monday responded to his email to say that the board had no plans to change the decision on mask wearing.

“I feel frustrated and I feel somewhat betrayed,” Toalson said. “We trust the board to make decisions that are in the best interest of our students and our teachers, and I believe they have fallen short of their responsibilities.”

[email protected] | Twitter: @andpicon


Many Comal Independent School District parents have turned to their neighbors and a Facebook page to glean information about the district&#;s rising COVID cases, after school leaders met their concerns with silence.

The district of about 26, students held the first day of school Aug. 24, with no mask mandate in place. Since then, case numbers have climbed above among both students and staff, according to data collated by a Comal ISD parent and shared on Facebook. Last year, Comal ISD reported 1, cases among staff and students, according to state data.

Just a week into the school year, every kindergarten teacher at the district&#;s Kinder Ranch Elementary School hadtested positive for COVID, according to an email shared on the Open Comal County Schools Safely Facebook page. Parents and staff members have increasingly turned to the Facebook page to share information.

Numerous school districts across the state have implemented mask mandates, challenging Gov. Greg Abbott&#;s executive order that prohibited governmental entities from requiring masks. At least 16 lawsuits have been filed against Abbott, including one by Bexar County and the city of San Antonio that the Texas Supreme Court eventually struck down.

With the litigation ongoing, the Texas Education Agency is not enforcing Abbott&#;s executive order.

But in Comal ISD, some parents are frustrated and worried. They don&#;t see teachers or students wearing masks. Superintendent Andrew Kim can be seen not wearing a mask in a video posted to the district&#;s Facebook page on Sept.1 or at an Aug. 31 school board meeting. Only one trustee wore a mask at that meeting.

Kim did not respond to multiple interview requests.

For parent Richard Becerra, the school district&#;s lack of safety protocols, such as requiring masks or offering remote instruction, give him great trepidation because he is sending one of his daughters to school for the first time. He has a daughter in kindergarten and one in fourth grade at Specht Elementary. Neither are old enough to get vaccinated.

Throughout the pandemic, Becerra has reiterated the importance of wearing masks to his daughters, but he knows his 5-year-old daughter will not be as diligent as wearing it at school without some reinforcement from her teacher.

&#;A 5-year-old is a 5-year-old with the attention span of a 5-year-old,&#; he said.

Becerra is disappointed with Kim&#;s handling of the situation. He said the superintendent has not addressed parents&#; concerns, which is part of his job.

“He gets paid a lot of money to do his job and not just part of the time,&#; Becerra said. &#;If he’s not going to address this, then maybe this responsibility should be in the hands of someone else. To Andrew Kim, I would simply say ‘step up or step aside.’”

Parent Nicole Flores kept her two children at home last school year, learning remotely, but that&#;s no longer an option for her students. She tried to enroll her students in a virtual school, but they were put on a waitlist. Both her kids are too young to get vaccinated. Her son, who attends Smithson Valley Middle School, turns 12 in February, and one of his birthday presents will be a COVID vaccine.

&#;We started and have pretty much been terrified every day,&#; Flores said. &#;I don&#;t understand why things are being handled so differently than other districts. There&#;s no reassurance.&#;

When she dropped her kids off the first week of school, Flores saw few other students wearing masks. Her daughter, who attends Bill Brown Elementary, told her more students in her class have begun wearing them, so Flores asked her teacher to group the masked students together at a table. But she wants the teacher to set an example and wear a mask.

&#;My mental health is almost in her hands,&#; Flores said.

For her, the possibility of protecting even one person from the highly contagious delta variant is reason enough for Comal ISD to issue a mask mandate, regardless of vaccination status. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the American Academy of Pediatrics both recommend universal indoor masking.

&#;As a parent, all you care about is that there&#;s a chance that they get it and don&#;t survive from it,&#; Flores said. &#;The superintendent and the principals, they just don&#;t seem to really be trying to put the parents at ease. They just seem like they&#;re more concerned with the people who want their choice so badly instead of possibly protecting my child and just wearing a damn mask.&#;

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Remote learning paused for

After a year of hybrid learning because of the pandemic, superintendent Andrew Kim announced Thursday Comal ISD will not offer remote learning in the school year.

However, the district plans a new initiative for remote learning in the school year, he wrote in an email to parents.

“During this next year, I will be working with my team on how we can offer a pure(ly) remote learning opportunity starting in that is staffed with teachers who are dedicated percent to remote instruction,” Kim said. “In the meantime, we will suspend remote learning for the school year.”

Currently, the district uses hybrid instruction, in which teachers cater lessons to online and face-to-face students in the same class period. 

“Remote learning has allowed students to participate in class when they are sick or doing a college visit, or to access recorded lessons on Google Classroom after hours,” Kim said. “However, while some students have seen success learning from home, for many it has been a struggle.

“We have also asked our teachers to instruct both on-campus and remote students simultaneously. While they have done a tremendous job, the combo-class model is simply not sustainable for the long term.”

While the district considers some form of remote instruction, not all students agree.

“I don’t think we should have remote so that it is easier for students and teachers and makes it more fair academics wise,” junior Jordan Streitz said. “Or, it should be only for certain people who qualify for it.”

With uncertainty concerning the COVID pandemic, other students find this decision premature.

“I think it’s unsafe to take that option away from people who are immunocompromised,” junior Elle Suermann said.

The increasing availability of the COVID vaccine to teens leads to optimism for In Texas, persons 16 and older qualify for the vaccine, with Pfizer catering to ages 16 and older and the Johnson & Johnson and Moderna vaccines verified for persons 18 and older.  In the meantime, Pfizer conducts efficacy tests for ages

“Certainly we will continue to monitor the pandemic and be prepared to pivot should the situation necessitate a change,” Kim said. “For now though, our focus will be on preparing to once again have on-campus learning for all students as we have traditionally done.”


Opinion: Parent Urges Comal ISD to Stop Pressuring Remote Learners and Parents

An unidentified student works remotely. Image courtesy of Comal ISD.

by Krystal Thompson
Mother of two remote learners at Garden Ridge Elementary School

(Editor&#;s Note: This OP/ED was written in response to a Friday, Jan. 5 email to parents from Comal ISD Board of Trustees President David Drastata.)

I opened an email from Mr. David Drastata this evening, written on behalf of the school board. I was disappointed but not surprised. Statements were made in this email which willfully ignore the fact that the Covid pandemic is much worse now than when the prudent decision to move to all remote learning was made last year.

Statements were made which place unjust and unfair pressure on parents who have chosen remote learning for their students at this time. Statements were made that seriously sell short the skills and dedication of the fine educators within this district.

Since the beginning of this challenging school year, the school board for Comal ISD has touted with pride the choice that they have given everyone &#; the desire for the parents to have options. Both remote and in-person education have been offered successfully.

As the parent of two remote students, there has been consistent pressure from certain administrators and the school board to return to in-person learning. When they say choice, they mean they will continue to offer in-person learning despite the pandemic. This is evidenced by the following quote: &#;The key to tackling this issue [students being behind] is to first encourage the remaining percent of students in remote learning to return to campus.&#;

The statement shows little regard for any parents who have made the challenging decision to keep their students home for a variety of reasons including immunocompromised family members, elderly relatives in the home, comorbidities, and/or the decision to keep those students home to allow those who truly need to be in school the space to learn and still socially distance.

Additionally, Mr. Drastata does acknowledge that there are learning gaps this year across the board (how could there not be here, across the country and globally given the circumstances?) but is quick to focus that on remote students.

&#;The biggest challenge within that is with our remote learners. No one at this point can dispute the disparities between on-campus instruction and remote learning.&#;

This disappointed me for innumerable reasons, but to name a few:

1.) My remote learners are testing at or above their grade level in curriculum assessments and measures-of-academic-progress (MAP) screeners, as have many of their peers. It would have been immensely helpful to see any data attached to back up this claim that the remote learners are the ones lagging behind across the board, rather than broad, general-and-disparaging statements. (Editor&#;s note: MAPs help the district know if a student is at, above, or below the expected level in reading.)

2.) This is yet another statement from this board that woefully underestimates and frankly insults the talented, dedicated and innovative educators within this district who have tirelessly put in endless hours to not just &#;handle&#; remote teaching but excel at it! My two students have received more direct attention, one-on-one time and individualized learning than ever before and have bloomed in this challenging time thanks to these amazing teachers.

3.) These claims are made with no opportunity for the teachers or remote parents to voice their opinions, concerns or even praise. I specifically asked for a phone number or email address we might have to thank and praise our teachers and was told nothing could be done. I emailed an administrator over my disappointment that in-person learning rather than &#;choice&#; was being pushed in emails about the instructional-delivery options and received no response. Teachers are not being consulted.

If they were, Mr. Drastata would know and acknowledge that learning in person is not going so well either. Necessary precautions such as hand washing and sanitizing take up large blocks of what was formerly education time.

The number of kids back in school necessitates more quarantine days as the kids are no longer able to socially distance in classes of 19, 20 or 21 kids. Lunchrooms are so crowded that the kids can no longer speak to each other while eating as it is unsafe. These are precautions taken to keep in-school learners safe and I applaud the effort, but placing primary focus of lack of educational progress on remote learners seems a bit naive as to the world around us this year.

I ask that the board honor its statement of &#;choice&#; and stop pressuring remote parents and learners to return to school when they feel unsafe. I ask that they listen to their educators who are on the verge of a nervous breakdown and ease their strain, and I ask that they focus on a plan to get these educators and staffers vaccinated and help all students catch up and still feel valued in a challenging year.


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Comal ISD: No remote learning next year

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