More than 100 students, parents and teachers gathered at the Comal Independent School District’s March 25 board meeting to voice concerns and support for the trustee’s decision to remove the district’s mask requirement.

During a special meeting on March 9, the CISD board of trustees voted 5-2 to allow parents and students to choose whether or not they will wear a mask for the remainder of the school year. Trustees Russ Garner and Tim Hennessee voted against the policy change.

Following the board’s decision, an email was sent to parents on March 9 that stated the new policy would go into effect March 10, less than 12 hours after the decision was made. The move sparked frustration for parents and employees who felt not enough was provided.

“You sent out an email at eight o'clock at night with a policy issue; a huge safety shift,” CISD parent Shannan Drichta said while addressing the board March 25. “You made the decision to make masks optional, and you claim to be leading the way by offering parents choices, but you’re the only district in the San Antonio region that decided to make the change.”

Out of 17 public school districts in the San Antonio area, CISD is the only district to amend its mask policy as of March 26. New Braunfels ISD announced March 8 that it would continue its requirement until the end of the school year.

In response to the shift, a Facebook page called Open Comal County Schools Safely surveyed 724 district parents and employees about the board’s decision.

About 78% of parents and 89% of district employees answered that they were in favor of keeping a mask mandate through the end of the school year, while 18% of parents and 11% of employees said they wanted parents to have a choice, according to the informal survey.

The response is similar to the results of a survey sent out by NBISD, which found that 70% of parents and 78% of employees preferred to keep the mask policy.

“I appreciate that this decision recognizes that I, as a parent, am best equipped to make health and safety decisions for my child,” CISD parent Emily Pauly said. “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.”

More than 25 people addressed the board during the public comment portion of the March 25 meeting, and each person was given one minute to speak. The speakers shared opinions on either side of the discussion, and supporters for both sides attended the meeting, some carrying signs advocating for or against masks.

Parents of students who receive special education services also spoke to both opinions, with some raising concerns that they did not feel safe sending their child to school if masks were not worn but online learning is not a viable option.

“Remote learning is not appropriate for us. During the nine months that my son was at home he regressed terribly,” said parent Amy Brown. “For children in the special education department, the choice is between free and appropriate public education and their lives.”

Others said wearing a mask made learning and socializing difficult for children enrolled in the special education program. During the 2019-20 school year, 12.17% of students in CISD received special education services.

“This year has no doubt been a struggle for us all, but it's put a great amount of strain on kids with special needs and sensory issues having last-minute classroom changes,” said CISD parent Natalee Kotowski. “My son has had a very hard time making friends this year, and we've had major difficulties creating these important relationships.”

Board members did not respond to the comments made during the meeting before moving on to other items on the agenda.

The board of trustees is continuing to track cases within the district and has not announced any plans to reevaluate the policy change, according to Steve Stanford, CISD director of communications.

With nine weeks of school remaining, approximately 80% of students are attending in-person instruction, and quarantine policies remain in place for students or employees who come into close contact with someone who tests positive for COVID-19.