School board screenshot

Denton ISD school board members during their Aug. 11 meeting.

Outrage, confusion and pleas constituted the bulk of public comments submitted to the Denton ISD school board since schools were shut down because of the coronavirus in March.

A public records request submitted by the Denton Record-Chronicle found all but two of the 60 comments submitted from March until August were directly related to the the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

Those comments were unevenly spread across six board meetings. July 10 and 28 held the vast majority of all comments submitted between March 23 and early August.

Upward of 80% of all comments addressed school closures specifically. One comment was submitted in error. Another was praise directed at Denton ISD athletic director Joey Florence after he was inducted into the Texas High School Coaches Association Hall of Fame.

The remaining 12 comments varied in content and tone, but all were related to the ongoing pandemic.

One particularly detailed comment submitted by Victoria Serna, a local teacher, raised common concerns about teacher and staff safety.

“We talk about the social emotional needs of students so they can be successful,” she wrote June 10. “What about teachers? How are we supposed to be the best version of ourselves for our students and our families when our social emotional needs aren’t being met.”

She also wrote against the use of gaiters in place of masks, voiced her concerns for the custodial staff tasked with cleaning infected areas and finished off her submission with a thorough list of questions for the school board.

Amy Bundgus, writing to the board on July 28, took aim at the then-recent recommendation from Denton County Public Health that school districts postpone in-person classes until at least Sept. 8.

She cited food insecurity, abuse and mental health as problems worsened during the pandemic for children. Beyond that, she argued kids aren’t staying home anyway, so there is no need to keep them out of school.

“Delaying two more weeks is nonsense,” Bundgus wrote. “Look around. The kids are everywhere.”

Like Bundgus, other locals implored board members to not delay the start of in-person classes, saying the virus and COVID-19 are not significant concerns for children. Researchers the world over have maintained there is much we don’t know about the virus, especially as it relates to children, but recent evidence suggests children can be highly effective spreaders of the virus.

Hundreds of thousands of children have tested positive for the virus across the country, and some have died. Just over 650 Denton County residents 12-19 years old had tested positive for the virus by Wednesday, according to Denton County Public Health information.

In contrast, 182 children between 5 and 11 years old have tested positive locally. Children 4 years old and younger made up 135 confirmed cases in the county.

A handful of county residents writing to the Denton school board argued all-virtual learning would be bad for children. Most parents and teachers seem to agree online-only learning isn’t as useful as in-person classes, but some see the risk to public health as outweighing the detriments to learning.

Another common argument against delaying in-person classes is the lack of child care available for parents who cannot stay home with their children. Emily Williams, a physician assistant in Denton, told board members she would not be able to adequately help her children with their schoolwork in the few hours she has at home each evening between work and sleep.

“I would be interested in hearing the Boards’ recommendations on a realistic ‘on-line’ school day that begins at 6:30 and ends at 7:30-8:00 in the evening and meets all of the Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills standards,” she wrote.

She also argued many students, particularly those who already struggle in school and/or have disabilities, might lag behind and never reach their full potential.

“I understand that COVID19 can be a dangerous virus,” Williams wrote in her conclusion. “Failing to educate our children to the best of our ability is even more dangerous with longer lasting consequences.”

For every person arguing against an online-only model, there were more than four others speaking in favor of no in-person classes until it’s safe to do so.

Stephen Shade, writing on July 10, succinctly summarized the bulk of their arguments.

He laid out a series of facts known about the virus and the pandemic culminating in a final question: “... how can you, the school board and superintendent, say, in good conscience, that it is safe and appropriate for students, faculty, and staff to return to face-to-face instruction this fall?”

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

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