Many Comal Independent School District parents have turned to their neighbors and a Facebook page to glean information about the district’s rising COVID-19 cases, after school leaders met their concerns with silence.
The district of about 26,000 students held the first day of school Aug. 24, with no mask mandate in place. Since then, case numbers have climbed above 600 among both students and staff, according to data collated by a Comal ISD parent and shared on Facebook. Last year, Comal ISD reported 1,202 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 had tested positive for COVID-19, 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-19 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.”