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Letter to the Editor: Keep Schools Closed, Stop Silencing Teachers

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Letter to the Editor: Keep Schools Closed, Stop Silencing Teachers

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Olivia Weisinger, left, and Shannon Drichta protest the reopening of Comal ISD campuses while standing in front of the historic Comal County courthouse. Drichta also spoke out at last Thursday's Commissioners Court.

by Olivia Weisinger and Shannon Drichta
Comal ISD parents

(Editor’s note: Co-author Olivia Weisinger served on Comal ISD’s Student Health Advisory Committee for the 2019-20 school year. Her business, Rev Up Recess, designs functional play spaces and play strategies for schools. When the COVID-19 pandemic began last spring, she worked with Garden Ridge Elementary School, which her child attends, to come up with ideas for outdoor classrooms. Over the summer, while teaching online classes to San Antonio-area public school teachers through Education Service Center, Region 20, Weisinger noticed teachers seemed visibly upset about plans to deploy them back into classrooms despite rising numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community. She later met Shannon Drichta, mother of Garden Ridge and Danville Middle school students who also is worried about reopening schools. Together they launched the Open Comal County Schools Safely Facebook page. Drichta spoke at last week’s Commissioners Court meeting while Weisinger picketed outside. Weisinger and Drichta surveyed 306 out of Comal ISD’s 1,500 teachers about their thoughts on reopening schools to on-campus education on Aug. 25 and received 216 responses. Their letter references a one-time Zoom meeting initiated by Comal County Judge Sherman Krause. He invited superintendents and asked public and private schools to each add one teacher and one parent to the call. Wesinger attended via Zoom on Wednesday, after being alerted by her husband, who heard about the meeting while working with New Braunfels Mayor Rusty Brockman. School officials at Garden Ridge Elementary and Danville Middle schools recommended Drichta for the Zoom meeting, but she was not added to the call list. Neither a video of the meeting or a transcript  is available online, so MyCanyonLake.com fact-checked this article with Comal County’s Director of Public Health, Dr. Dorothy Overman who also said Gov. Greg Abbott has decided school reopening is determined by school boards, not the local health authority, and she can only offer advice. Dr. Overman added that contact sports are not recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC) when the positivity rate is as high as Comal County’s, and that there also are risks with band and choir.

“An open letter to Comal ISD Supt. Andrew Kim and Comal ISD’s Board of Trustees:

It is with grave concern for our students, teachers, and communities’ lives that we write today. We have exhausted every other avenue to gain your ear and to help you in this endeavor for safe reopening plans. You have silenced and dismissed teachers, parents, and doctors who have any dissenting opinion of your plan by refusing to return phone calls or answer emails and to alter your school plans to be in line with the medical advice provided to you.

Last week you were advised by Comal County’s Director of Public Health Dr. Dorothy Overman that schools should not open until the test-positive rate is down to 5% (Comal is currently at 16%).

Further, you were advised that all children (including preschool) should wear a mask when open. You were educated on plexiglass and face shields not being enough and that masks are necessary. You were informed that close contact would include anyone in the school that had been in contact with a positive case for 15 minutes (because the masks we are wearing are not medical grade); meaning an entire class will need to quarantine for a full 14 days if someone tests positive.

Dr. Overman emphasized a full 14 days of quarantine is needed as she has seen cases come positive on day 14. You were also informed that by law you would need to report every positive case to public health for contact tracing to help indicate anyone else that might need to be quarantined. Last you were informed that electives such as band, choir, and contact sports should not be occurring at this time.

Mr. Kim, you cherry picked parents to give feedback at your meeting with Judge Krause. Last week, there were several parents waiting for a link to the meeting and were not given one. We recognized your shock when we spoke up with our concerns of the plan, as you had not expected us to be there. We heard the doctor’s advice to you (as detailed above) and we then watched as you gave CISD radio announcements the next day with none of the medical advice amended to your plan.

(Comal ISD Board of Trustees President) David Drastata, we sat in the meeting and noted you did not make a single comment. However, you were a witness to hearing the same medical advice. A few days later, we read your words as you advocated for schools to reopen on time.

The board has not had school board meetings since June 25 and does not have one on the books until after school starts. You are taking away the communities’ voice.

(Comal ISD Trustee SMD #7) Cody Mueller, as my representative on the board, you have lost my confidence and my vote. A man that cannot stand up to hear a parent’s concern with a respectful reply by call or email has no business sitting in as a representative. You have not represented us, as you are not even willing to listen.

We have heard from teachers who are fearful to speak out as their jobs have been threatened and they fear losing their certifications and retirements. Since the district has refused response or transparency, we conducted our own survey for teachers. Our preliminary findings show only 18% of teachers feel comfortable returning back to school and 6% plan on retiring or resigning.

While you have tried to silence us, you are pushing forward to reopen schools in an environment that is scientifically known to be a disaster. You have a school employee who recently passed away from Covid and you have yet to recognize his loss or your concern. Is that how you plan to handle all the lives lost after you open against medical advice?

We are demanding that schools stay closed to in-building until the positivity rate is below 5% (CDC recommendation).

We are demanding that the silencing of teachers (with threats of job loss) be stopped immediately and that teachers are given a voice and choice on when it is right for them to re-enter without repercussions on their contract.

We are demanding teachers receive better benefits. We want to know that they have the sick days needed to be paid if they have to take leave because their class is quarantined, they have Covid, or their family gets sick.

We demand better for our students, our teachers, and our community. The decisions that you are making will not only impact those in your building, but our entire community.

While we recognize the efforts that Comal ISD has worked to place safe measures in place, we also recognize the reality gap between what is necessary for safe return to school and what the community is able to provide. It is clear that it is not medically safe to open schools. Reopening schools will exponentially spread this virus; and our hospitals in Comal and Bexar are already at capacity. This means your decision is one that will cost lives or save lives.

While we respect this is a difficult decision for schools across the nation, Comal ISD’s lack of concern for teacher and parent input and communication is disturbing. It takes 70-80% for the community social distancing to get community spread contained. We have 34% high risk children in our district.

We can serve the community best by social distancing where we can and giving a soft opening for our most vulnerable. We need to make the right decision for our community together as each of our decisions affects the others. We need to rise together and do what is right for our community.”

 

 

15 Comments

  1. LW August 8, 2020

    I’m a CISD parent of children attending both elementary & middle school, who has thoroughly read all 55 (now 58) pages. While it seems like a viable plan, it places a lot of individual responsibility and emphasis on the students, which is somewhat of an unrealistic expectation. With only days left to decide, I’m completely torn because I know that in-person instruction is what’s best for my children but also don’t want them used as guinea pigs. I certainly wasn’t prepared, nor do I want to continue trying to teach my kids remotely but decisions are clearly being made based on politics and money, NOT science and current community spread. During the initial survey I opted for in-person instruction without hesitation but now think it may be a disaster to implement and maintain.

    Reply
  2. LM August 6, 2020

    Grow up. Die from this virus? You’re more likely to die in a car accident.

    Reply
  3. Laci Harrison August 6, 2020

    In addition to my last comment, I would like to ask about your survey. I’m guessing you sent it to a hand picked list, just as you accuse Mr. Kim of doing? I’d hardly say 200 teachers are a good indicator of our very large district. Are you willing to share your entire results of the survey or will you only be picking out quotes that fit your narrative?

    I ask because I haven’t come across one teacher that feels as forlorn as you say. Nervous, yes, distraught, no. In addition, do you realize the more you advocate for only at home learning, the more people will choose independent home schooling and therefore less teachers will be needed? It’s time to look at the big picture.

    I also have to wonder why you chose to send your kids to Comal ISD if it’s ran so terribly? I am thankful people such as Cody Mueller, David Drastata, Jason York, Andrew Kim and many, many, others have been working day and night since mid-March to give families the choice. I’m guessing their hard work in the past is what made you choose Comal ISD in the first place. Their record stands for itself.

    Speaking of surveys, how about the survey taken of Comal County parents where 60% (CISD and NBISD) want the choice? With opening, there is risk, we can all agree. And yes, some classes will have to be quarantined, but that is what 60% of Comal county residence have chosen to endure. I’m sorry you do not agree but it does not give free reign to disparage good people or tell half-truths from second hand information to attempt to make a point.

    Reply
  4. Laci Harrison August 6, 2020

    I would rather not respond to this letter but being that I actually was on the zoom meeting with Judge Krause, Andrew Kim, Dr. Overman and many others, I feel like I have to. There is some truth to what you say, some untruth and a lot left out.

    To begin, what the original “task force” was designed for and what the actual meeting morphed into was 2 totally different things. In the beginning, days before AG Ken Paxton sent his letter, the call was going to be between Dr. Overman and others of her choosing, Judge Krause, Mr. Kim and the task force consisting of a teacher, parent and board member. The task force was a way to speak with Dr. Overman and explain their plan for reopening before she made the call to preemptively shut down Comal county schools just as Bexar County did.

    ***I am sure many would like to know that if not for Ken Paxton’s letter, letter stating school boards could decide how to open schools and the county could not preemptively close schools, Dr. Overman had every intention of shutting down schools without ever even hearing Comal ISD’s plan for opening safely. Let that sink in, someone paid contractually by the county and not voted on by the people was going to overrule what Comal ISD board had decided- to give the choice of in school or at home learning.***

    To continue, between the time the call was scheduled and when it happened, AG Ken Paxton sent his letter. Realizing Dr. Overman no longer had authority to shut down schools before they opened, the call was opened up to every school district in the county to be represented and explain how they are going to open safely. A few of the schools added to the call included NBISD, NB Christian Academy, St. Peter and Paul, plus others. I’d like to reiterate, each of these schools heard the same information Mr. Kim and David Drastata heard and they all chose to move forward with offering the choice of in and out of school learning as well.

    As for what was said in the meeting, you heard right on a few things but left pertinent information out. You forgot or chose not to mention Dr. Emily Bragg, NBISD and CISD medical director was on the call. She read a letter written by the Comal County Medical Society and stated the outcome of a poll given to their members. 2/3 of the doctors of Comal County said yes to opening schools and 1/3 said no. The letter said (summarizing), they support options for families under the guidelines of the CDC/TEA and masks need to be warn. Again, for many reasons I won’t mention here, 2/3 of Comal County doctors agreed with schools being able to open.

    You are correct in that, Dr. Overman did state she does not think the schools should open until the positivity rate is between 6-8%. She has ever right to state her opinion but it doesn’t mean parents and tax payers should be taken away their right to have a choice. Not only that, but if the positivity rate is going to be used for something so important, they need to get the numbers right, but that’s for another opinion letter. (And, by the way, the last time we were anywhere close to that percentage, the entire state was shut down so why aren’t you advocating for that too?)

    You also state Mr. Kim did not address any of Dr. Overman’s recommendations but it’s because he already had prior to the radio announcement you speak of. I’ll gladly get you a copy of the 55 page booklet given to the administration of each school and you will see a great deal of CDC/TEA protocol listed in detail, including the use of mask. As a side note, Mr. Kim referenced the 55 page book during the call which primitively included most of the safety protocol Dr. Overman mentioned since she was regurgitating CDC recommendations. I know for a fact Comal ISD will gladly work with Dr. Overman and the county to open schools as safe as humanly possible.

    This, I believe, is a more thorough and fair summarization of the zoom call you did not attend. People deserve to hear all of the information so they can make their own decision. I have detailed notes and can share more on the meeting if interested.

    Although we may disagree on how to open schools, we can agree Texas needs to pay teachers more and treat them like the essential workers they are.

    Reply
    1. Melissa Reinarz August 6, 2020

      Thank you for helping us understand what happened in that meeting. Fear is a powerful weapon and it is being wielded at our community and nation with full force. There are always 2 sides of the story. As a former CISD employee and mother of 4, I support our elected school board and Mr. Kim. These men and women serve our community well and have worked hard to have a plan in place. Hard choices are having to be made by everyone. I am thankful we have a choice in CISD to send our kids back or remote learn. Prayers for all of the teachers, staff, kids and families in our community.

  5. Arriona August 6, 2020

    I feel for all the family’s that have been effected, but having your child going to school as a way of day care is not the answer. While it is true that younger children do not show signs of being sick, they are also a systematic, so they can bring it home and make the household sick. The numbers are not low enough to warrant starting school in person. I think that Andrew Kim needs to stop Grandstanding and start really looking at what is best for all that are involved. It is with much distress that I am keeping my child home and opting for on line learning, because I do not think that the schools are safe.

    Reply
    1. Melissa Reinarz August 6, 2020

      But don’t you see — you have a CHOICE! You don’t feel comfortable, so you can keep your child at home. The issue here is having the ability to choose. I appreciate the right to choose what is best for my family. It is a gift. Our parental rights are diminishing all the time. I do not agree with you, but that does not mean that I have to do what you choose OR that you have to do what my family does. I’m glad for both of us.
      Have you ever had a conversation with Mr. Kim? He has been a fantastic leader for our district. We are blessed to have him and the school board. True leaders are hard to come by these days.

  6. AK August 5, 2020

    What about children under 10? Right now masks aren’t required by the district for our elementary students.

    Reply
  7. MN August 5, 2020

    I disagree. Not all parents voices were heard. Not all were taken into account. So not all this information stands correct. Many of us are not sick of having our kids home. I have enjoyed this time with my kids but it comes down to the fact that both my husband and I work full time. If one of us continues to have to call out, we risk being homeless. We have already lost our car and our house. We have had to move into a hotel that we can barely afford as is because we can’t afford to come up with a deposit on a new place. We are barely keeping food on our table. It has already been proven that children aren’t affected by Covid19 the same way as adults are. Should we take more precautions especially with flu season just around the corner? Absolutely. Social distance, masks, face shields for teachers, administration, lunch workers, janitors, bus drivers, etc., masks for children 10 years and old … all this, absolutely. Adding in more lunches, staggered recesses, limited groups … again, absolutely. Perhaps spending money to put up temperature checks at all entrances and hand sanitizer stations at the door of every classroom should be a thing. Offering remote learning to children who need to stay home due to being sick, extra benefits for teachers and staff … 100%, I truly think teachers need higher pay, better benefits, and more anyway. There are more than enough ways to allow kids to go back to school safely. Please stop taking the voices of ALL away and summarizing just the opinions that match yours to include everyone or a majority. You want to be heard, awesome. I hear you. I understand your fear. And you are fearful rightfully so. I understand your concern, I’ve got my fears too. But I do not agree with not starting school.

    Reply
  8. MLong August 5, 2020

    Thank you, Mr. Kim! So many of us have sat silently or emailed you privately our support. Thank you for listening to us and considering our childrens’ social and mental health, as well as their education. I love living in Comal ISD, and I appreciate the many teachers who are ready to teach our kids in whatever format parents have chosen.

    Reply
  9. Tiffani Zimmerhanzel August 5, 2020

    Where was the survey for teachers that you conducted? I am a CISD teacher and I don’t recall seeing any such survey. How many teachers did you survey? Who is doing the threatening of losing jobs for speaking up about concerns? I have not seen or heard of this type of behavior.

    Reply
    1. AK August 5, 2020

      I imagine that they reached out to everyone they could, but as the survey was not conducted by the district, not all employees would have received it.

  10. Blanca August 5, 2020

    It seems the kids are being used as guinea pigs to see what happens.

    Reply
  11. Pam Sohan August 5, 2020

    AMEN!! Schools opening for in person classes will be a disaster. I know parents are “sick of having their kids home and that schooling remotely is hard.” But think how much harder it will be to tell your child that a friend, a teacher, a relative or family friend has died because they contracted Covid from a friend, a teacher, a librarian, a janitor, a bus driver, a school nurse, a counselor, a teacher’s aide, a cafeteria worker or that any of the people they see everyday has died because school opened too early. I feel for everybody making these decisions, but ignoring science and the medical experts is just plain stupid. Opening schools because funding is threatened is downright criminal.

    Reply
    1. Melissa Reinarz August 6, 2020

      I would respectfully ask if you are a teacher or a current parent? Medical advice IS NOT being ignored. It is being considered and a plan is in place. The CDC and American Academy of Pediatrics have both said schools can and should open with community input and safe practices. Have you looked at the 55 page plan that CISD has prepared? It is very thorough and absolutely based on the CDC recommendations. By the way, there is tons of science that can back the reopening of our communities. But I’m sure none of that science is good enough for you. The choices our leaders are making will not be perfect, nothing is. Hard choices are being made by all. I would consider teachers and school staff as essential workers – perhaps you disagree. Right now our students need positive and encouraging teachers who want to be in the classroom – if a teacher feels they could lose their life, then maybe they have some hard choices to make. I do not say this lightly, I am a former teacher in the district and am willing to go back into the classroom, should the need arise. Finally, as a mom of four, I would never tell my child that they somehow were responsible if someone died of COVID-19.

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