Comal ISD Educators Warn Commissioners Against School Reopenings
Two Comal ISD educators afraid of losing their jobs if they criticized the district publicly sent a retired physician and a spouse to Commissioners Court in their place on Thursday to warn against reopening district campuses too soon.
Also speaking out against sending students back to school on Aug. 25 were Stephanie Phillips, a teaching artist and professional musician who works in private and public schools and is running against Rep. Kyle Biedermann for Texas House District 73; Shannon Dirta, a school volunteer whose children attend Garden Ridge Elementary and Danville Middle schools in Comal ISD; and Kim Farlow, a retired Comal ISD teacher who works as a substitute teacher and also is president of the Democrats of Comal County and Democratic Precinct Chair for Precinct 101.
The spouse, who identified herself only as the mother of five- and nine-year-old Comal ISD students and the wife of a Comal ISD high school science teacher who teaches epidemiology, dual-credit biology, advanced placement environmental science, regular environmental science and forensics, said the district’s School Launch Strategic Plan, which is still in draft form, seems reasonable — “but you are developing a sterile plan in a box that is going to go in a petri dish.”
She said students — like many adults — will show up at school with notes from doctors that excuse them from wearing masks due to medical conditions like asthma or anxiety.
Dirta said the school launch plan doesn’t adequately address issues like social distancing in hallways and at lunch and puts teachers — who don’t have the option to stay home — at high risk.
“Their choice is to come into school or you will have to resign, and I think they need to be afforded the same protection as our students,” she said.
“…opening too early will only delay the semester by causing us to have to close down again. This will be a disaster for students and parents alike.” –Stephanie Phillips, teacher and candidate for Texas House District 73
Comal County Judge Sherman Krause, who was not wearing a mask, commented that he and Scott Haag, Commissioner Precinct #2, addressed these concerns in an earlier conference call, but did not elaborate.
Comal ISD spokesperson Steve Stanford later confirmed that Krause organized and moderated the call, which included representatives from public and private schools, health officials, county officials, mayors, and parents. New Braunfels Independent School District was included in the call.
Farlow acknowledged that while Comal County is seeing a decline in the number of COVID-19 cases reported daily, that number could go right back up if schools reopen to in-person education.
“I love the district but it’s time to speak out,” she said. “This is not the place where I thought I would be today.”
Dr. Marilyn Aden, a retired internist who practiced medicine in Chicago, told commissioners that Georgia Tech’s COVID-19 Risk Assessment Planning Tool estimates the chance of any school that reopens remaining unaffected by the virus is zero.
She said she was asked to read a letter by a teacher afraid to speak out in public.
“She’s worried that our school system, our district, is setting her up to be a very sad case study in the face of this pandemic,” Aden said.
In the letter, the teacher argued it would be difficult to decide who to quarantine and for how long if cases of COVID-19 are reported in schools. Other concerns included athletics, the number of times high school students change classes throughout the day, and the use of face shields instead of masks.
Phillips told commissioners she’ll be the first out of a job if schools fail to reopen but supports a delay anyway. She said she has read, listened to and watched everything posted online by all area school districts.
“It’s time to stop hoping that what we want to happen will happen,” she said, adding teachers are terrified to speak out for fear of losing their jobs.
In a “normal” school year, Phillips said she checks in at three different campuses and walks down hallways to teach multiple groups of children in small windowless rooms.
“I want to push back against the idea that Republicans want schools open and Democrats want them closed,” she said in an interview today. “I want nothing more than for us to get back to school but I am not willing to put students at risk because I travel to so many campuses and I have at-risk family members at home. I feel that opening too early will only delay the semester by causing us to have to close down again. This will be a disaster for students and parents alike. Teachers need to know what to be planning for. Right now we have no idea.”
Because she is running for elected office, Phillips said she receives second-hand reports from teachers about positive COVID-19 tests among staff as well as photos of mask-free meetings.
“I am hearing from multiple teachers within Comal ISD who have grave concerns but are afraid to speak out,” she said.
County Health Director Cheryl Fraser told commissioners her office sits in on weekly Zoom meetings with school districts and other county and city officials. The meetings began in March.
“Everyone is working very, very hard,” she said. The Office of Public Health is “here to be a go-between, and listen to the community, relay that and make recommendations to the school districts.”
(Editor’s Note: To read Comal ISD’s plan for reopening, whose ‘four guiding principles’ “will dictate how we move forward to educate our students and create a high-performing academic environment this year,” click here. Comal ISD parents also have the option of educating their students at home.)