The Comal Independent School District board of trustees’ decision to make face masks optional for students and staff has sparked both criticism and protest, and a petition to reverse the decision was nearing its signature goal Friday.

The school board met at its New Braunfels headquarters on Tuesday and voted 5-2 to make masks optional, with District 1 trustee Tim Hennessee and District 4 trustee Russell Garner casting the dissenting votes. School board members did not wear masks or physically distance themselves during the meeting, nor did Superintendent Andrew Kim.

The change went into effect Wednesday at the district of 25,000 students, about 80% of whom are learning in person. Comal ISD spokesperson Steve Stanford said most students and staff continued to wear masks in the days after the vote, as they had been required to all school year.

School board president David Drastata wrote in an email Wednesday night to families that the board wanted to give families and school staff the choice of whether to wear masks at school.

“We know that our success can be directly attributed to our health and safety protocols: daily health screening, social distancing, good hygiene practices, and face coverings,” Drastata said in the email. “While the choice to wear a face mask is now up to you, please note that quarantine protocols will still be in effect. 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.”

Within hours of the vote, Comal ISD parent Mona Ramirez started a Change.org petition calling for the board to reconsider its decision and require masks for everyone on campus until the end of the school year or until all staff has been vaccinated. As of Friday afternoon, more than 2,300 people had signed the petition.

Students, parents, and grandparents signed the petition, sharing concerns for the safety of students and staff members. One person simply signed, “I am a student, and I do not feel safe.”

Additionally, a small group of students protested the board decision Thursday outside Canyon High School. The group drew counter-protesters who believe masks should be optional.

Ramirez said she created the petition after seeing scores of parents and teachers express concern and outrage on social media at not being surveyed about the decision. She believes the board should have sent out a survey to families before voting to make masks optional.

“I’m just a mom, armed with a cellphone, who quickly put up a petition to figure out what we could gauge, any type of opinions or comments or thoughts from people,” she said. “And sure enough, within 24 hours, there were at least 400 people already piping in to say, ‘Keep the mask, keep the mask.'”

Ramirez has two sons in the district, and the one attending school in person decided on his own to continue wearing a mask to school. She declined to say where they attend school for fear of retaliation.

During the school board meeting, trustees reviewed COVID-19 case data for the district and vaccination efforts for staff. Of the 2,000 teachers who were given an opportunity to be vaccinated, 90% opted in and received at least their first dose. As of Friday afternoon, Comal ISD reported 46 active COVID-19 cases across the district, according to the district’s website.

Kim told the board that the pattern the district has seen is that COVID-19 cases spike after holiday breaks and then drop down again four to five days later. Most exposure occurred off-campus, and when transmission happened at school, it was at times when students or staff weren’t wearing masks, such as at lunch or athletic practices.

Drastata said during the meeting that while masks played a role in slowing down the spread of the coronavirus, he did not think it was necessary to mandate them anymore because fewer people have been getting sick and more people have been getting vaccinated.

“If we continue to require that every student wear a mask every single day, we’re getting the point of overreach,” he said.

Hennessee, one of the trustees who dissented, visited all six campuses in the area he represents and found most staff wanted masks to remain mandatory. He said lifting the mask mandate showed a “total lack of respect for teachers.”

“Teachers are extremely uncomfortable with the idea of going into a classroom, standing in front of 25 kids who potentially would not have a mask on,” he said. “Do I believe that a teacher will give their best instruction if they’re a little bit nervous or actually sitting out in their car in the morning wondering, ‘Do I want to go in today? I’m scared. It’s still out there. It’s still out there.’ Nothing has changed since the beginning of school.”

The other trustee who dissented, Garner, said he thought the board should at least wait until after spring break, which starts Monday, to make a change. Families will be traveling over the break after the statewide mask order has been lifted.

The Texas Education Agency announced last week that school districts can maintain their mask requirements, leaving it to school boards to determine district policy. The statewide mask order expired Wednesday.

The Comal ISD school board could reevaluate its decision after spring break. That is when the district will see if more families opted to switch their students to remote instruction. Stanford said parents can switch to virtual instruction at any time by notifying their campus, but the district had not seen an influx of students pivoting from in-person learning after the board vote.

Comal ISD also changed its contact-tracing process Tuesday to exclude people wearing masks from those who must quarantine if they came into contact with someone who tested positive for COVID-19.

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.