Facing inconsistent compliance with mask-wearing recommendations, five Denton ISD parents spoke Monday with the Denton Record-Chronicle to share their thoughts on an unpredictable school year.

Denton ISD schools opened Thursday with a recommendation that everybody on campuses, regardless of vaccination status, wear face coverings to prevent the spread of the pandemic-causing coronavirus.

Kelly Caster kept her four kids home from school Monday in protest of Denton ISD’s refusal to defy Gov. Greg Abbott’s prohibition on local mask mandates.

Caster said her family had a meeting Sunday night to decide what they’d do. She said the decision was to keep the kids home even though they want to be back in face-to-face classes.

All four of her children are under the age of 12, so they aren’t yet eligible to receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

Denton Schools Sit-Out — a parent group of uncertain size, which Caster is aligned with — formed on Facebook over the past week to protest Denton ISD’s refusal to require universal mask usage even after the Denton City Council’s ordinance mandating masks in schools and other group settings.

The Denton Schools Sit-Out group had originally planned to have their children stay home from school on Monday to signal to Denton ISD how strongly they want universal masking on campuses, but Caster said the plan is to now have students stay home on Friday in hopes of garnering more support.

Asked Monday if she would keep her children at home after Monday, Caster said she honestly wasn’t sure yet.

Her initial desire to keep her kids home grew after seeing Denton County Public Health statistics that show a worsening of pandemic conditions in the county.

“Knowing that and seeing pictures of kids interacting in the class and not being able to socially distance … I just felt really torn,” Caster said.

She felt torn between getting her children back into face-to-face classes — with the accompanying social interaction that brings — and the route that she feels is safest for her kids, which is to keep them home if more people won’t be masked on campuses.

Julie Zwahr, a Denton ISD spokesperson, said the district actually saw more students in classes over the past three school days than it did during the 2019-20 school year, which was the most recent year with even close to full in-person attendance.

She said Day 3 in 2019 had 571 students absent, but Monday had only 459 students absent. Denton ISD’s enrollment has grown since 2019.

The district’s position is that it isn’t able to defy Abbott’s orders, and the city of Denton’s order covers only the 20 Denton ISD campuses within city limits. Another 23 schools are spread across neighboring parts of Denton County.

“The bottom line for us is we want what’s best for our kids,” Zwahr said. “We are strongly encouraging everybody to wear a mask at school.”

She said the district is still urging people on campuses to socially distance whenever possible, but that is less feasible with more people attending classes in person compared with this past school year.

Clare Brock and her husband decided to send their 6-year-old back to in-person classes despite the lack of a mask mandate, but she said she was happy with how many teachers and students she saw masked up on the first day of classes Thursday.

Despite that, she said there aren’t a lot of options for her family even if masks are less prevalent.

“My husband and I both work, so we didn’t feel like we really had a choice” but to send their child back to campus.

They have a toddler to care for and two careers to manage, so they didn’t feel another year of virtual learning was in their family’s best interest. Besides, Brock said, a 6-year-old isn’t really meant to sit in front of a computer for as many hours in a day as are required with virtual instruction.

The options seemed to be hiring a nanny, which is expensive and difficult; have her quit her job, which she fears would derail her career; or send their son back to school, “so you’re kind of taking a gamble that nothing devastating will happen,” Brock said Monday.

She recalled “literally trying to sit down and do the math” about what risks were worth taking.

At this point, the thing she wants most from Denton ISD is more communication on contact tracing efforts. On Aug. 10, the district reaffirmed its commitment to do contact tracing on COVID-19 cases, but Brock said she hasn’t gotten any direct communication.

Despite that, she acknowledged the district was only on Day 3 of the school year, so she’s willing to wait and see what comes along as the year progresses.

Candice Jackson found herself in a slightly different side of the same equation Brock had to sort through.

Both of Jackson’s sons, who are 13 and 15, are fully vaccinated, but they’re still worried about the lack of a universal masking policy in Denton ISD.

Both she and her older son addressed the Denton school board last week to urge board members to adopt a mandatory masking policy.

She said she’s supportive of future sit-out protests, or perhaps other tactics, to send a message to Denton ISD administrators.

Jackson emailed Superintendent Jamie Wilson and the entire school board, but she said Wilson’s response was the only substantial one.

She recalled Wilson’s advice was that she try to get her eligible child into the district’s new K-8 Virtual Academy. She said she has since secured a spot for her 13-year-old, but they haven’t arrived at a final decision yet.

She and Evelyn Tarin-Moreno, another parent who spoke during Tuesday’s board meeting, both said they have elderly family members living with them, which means they have an extra reason to request universal masking on school campuses.

Tarin-Moreno’s 13-year-old son stayed home from school Monday as part of the planned protest.

“This is the position that we have unfortunately been put in,” she said.

She primarily blamed Abbott for tying the hands of local elected officials, but she also pointed a finger at Denton ISD for not stepping up to defy him.

Like the other parents, Tarin-Moreno wants her child to be able to physically attend classes, but she doesn’t feel it’s safe enough. She said she can feel the issue of masking dividing parents in the district.

“It hasn’t been talked about, but everyone now knows who wears a mask and who doesn’t,” she said.

She said Wilson was the only person to respond to her email to the district, which was also sent to each school board member.

Emily Meisner said she was one of the lucky few who got her child into the K-8 Virtual Academy before spots filled up ahead of the first day of school.

She said the academy is great for her 7-year-old, but she doesn’t buy Denton ISD’s argument that the virtual campus is a catch-all solution for anybody who wants to see masks worn by everybody in schools.

“I agree that the virtual academy is wonderful … but that can’t be the answer to this dilemma,” she said.

Not every parent can afford to have their children at home during the school day, and the academy simply doesn’t have enough space for all the students who want a spot.

Too many people have bought into the politicized nature of masking and vaccines, Meisner said, and she thinks Denton ISD is now afraid to follow the recommendations of public health officials, which includes the wearing of masks in schools by the vaccinated and unvaccinated alike.

She first decided to try enrolling her child in the virtual academy early in the year after she emailed Superintendent Wilson.

Looking back on that exchange Monday, Meisner remembered asking him before last school year ended if masking would be required at the start of the 2021-22 school year.

“His answer was just to tell me that they would continue to [mandate mask-wearing] through the end of last year … and I took that non-answer to mean ‘no, they would not be requiring masks,’” Meisner said.

MARSHALL REID can be reached at 940-566-6862 and via Twitter at @MarshallKReid.

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