Lakewood Ranch's Elly Barr was ready to send her kids back to school for a somewhat normal school year.
Her daughter was entering seventh grade and her son was going into eighth grade at R. Dan Nolan Middle School. They were not planning to wear masks as the district started the year with an optional mask policy.
But then the number of cases among students and employees throughout the School District of Manatee County increased.
The first day of school Aug. 10, nine cases were reported. By the end of the first week, there were 179 cases in the district. Two weeks into school, the district reported 825 cases with 227 of those cases coming from schools in East County.
In the entirety of last year, East County schools reported 347 cases.
Now families are adjusting to the increase in COVID-19 protocols at school that the district hopes will mitigate the number of cases on campuses. With more cases, parents are uncertain of how the year will progress.
"All of a sudden it seemed to explode," Barr said. "It's very mental right now. If you don't wear a mask, it's like you don't care. If you do wear a mask, it's like you're being over protective of your child. It's been very judgmental. I don't actually know what to do for the best anymore. I'm just doing what I feel is right."
After the second day of school, Barr's daughter, Alice, was sent home to quarantine after possibly being exposed at school.
Barr now is sending her children to school wearing masks. With her eldest, who is a student at Lakewood Ranch High School, returning home after having a spinal fusion, she's worried someone will bring COVID-19 home and possibly spreading it among family members.
"I'm a bit nervous about that, so I'm taking care of my family as well," Barr said. "Everything just seems to have gone out of control. I don't know how it's looking for the future to be honest."
River Place's Nicole Hamer described the first two weeks of school as chaotic. She has two third graders at Braden River Elementary, a seventh grader at Braden River Middle and a freshman at Braden River High School.
Hamer said one of her sons already has been sent home to quarantine, and her seventh grader and freshman are having transportation issues due to the district's bus driver shortage.
"For my middle schooler, the bus has not come and when it has come, it's been very late," Hamer said. "For my high schooler, they didn't even have enough room on his bus. They said the bus is full and we can come back in an hour and a half to get you."
Mike Barber, a spokesman for the district, said the district has 133 bus routes and in the weeks leading up to school, 20 drivers left the district to take other jobs. Then another 20 drivers had been out at different times during the first eight days of school for "health reasons."
Barber said everyone in the transportation department is certified to drive, so everyone in the office staff is driving buses to help with the shortage in drivers.
As for the increase in COVID-19 cases throughout the district, Hamer said she's not concerned because "it seems like almost everyone is going to get this, vaccinated or not."
"I don't really know how to feel," Hamer said. "I know a lot of people that have been vaccinated and have gotten it and have it right now. It's kind of hard to judge how I feel. I'm just kind of going with the flow."
Hamer isn't sending her kids to school with masks because she doesn't believe it's mentally healthy for her children. She's also had friends whose kids go to schools that require masks and their children still are being sent home to quarantine or are testing positive.
"I think everyone is doing the best they can," Hamer said. "I think it's just going to be a virus where people are going to have to build up their immune systems. I mean everybody's got a tough job. I can't comment anything negatively. I think everybody's doing a great job with what we're being dealt with."
Lakewood Ranch's Amy Hammon pulled her daughter from Robert E. Willis Elementary School last year because she wasn't doing well with e-learning, but she didn't want to send her to school because of COVID-19.
Now, her children are attending Pinnacle Academy because they have a mandatory mask mandate in place that doesn't have an opt-out option until the positivity rate in the area is lower. She said the mask mandate makes her feel her children will be safe on campus.
"My children will continue to wear masks and take all precautions possible," Hammon said.
Although her children are in private school now, Hammon continues to write to the School Board of Manatee County, Gov. Ron DeSantis and Richard Corcoran, the commissioner of the Florida Department of Education, to advocate for everyone to wear masks in school.
"We have to fight for our children who are defenseless right now," Hammon said. "We are actually going to have to beg the state of Florida to allow our children to have the smallest sense of safety, which is a mask, because we have something that they don't and that is a vaccine. If we have the opportunity and have chosen to, we have been vaccinated. My family has been vaccinated. If my children were older, they would be vaccinated. Essentially, we are sending our children to school unprotected."