Moving quickly to avoid possible COVID-related state restrictions, the Denair Unified School District decided Thursday night to begin a phased reopening of all school campuses after more than six months of distance learning only.
The unanimously approved change came after a special Board of Trustees meeting at which Superintendent Terry Metzger outlined the district’s comprehensive reopening plan and stressed the urgency of enacting it immediately.
That’s because Stanislaus County is on the verge of being downgraded Tuesday from “red” to “purple” on the state’s color-coded COVID watch list, denoting worsening health conditions in the county because of the pandemic. Schools that reopen while the county is still in the red tier may stay open even if the county reverts to the purple tier, where it was until Oct. 13. But campuses that are not reopen by that time cannot do so until the county has been in the red tier for at least two more weeks.
If Denair doesn’t reopen by Monday and the county slides into purple status, it could be well after the first of the year before students could return to in-person classes. All students have been distance learning since mid-March.
“This allows us to continue a gradual reopening based on local community conditions even if Stanislaus County returns to the purple tier on Tuesday,” Metzger told trustees.
“Maintaining local control is very important,” said Trustee Ray Prock Jr.
Under Denair’s plan, about 30% of the district’s 1,300 students would return to Denair Elementary Charter Academy, Denair Middle School and Denair High School on Monday based on need. Those students are either in special education, are English learners, are enrolled in DECA’s dual language immersion program or are in danger of failing one or more classes at DMS or DHS. At Denair Charter Academy, some independent study students will be allowed to resume in-person weekly appointments with their teachers.
A survey of parents last month showed that about 53% want their children to return to in-person classes under a hybrid format, where students are on campus for two days a week and receive distance learning the other three days. The rest of Denair’s families prefer to stay on distance learning full time until the county’s health conditions improve.
In the coming weeks, Metzger said more students will return to Denair’s campuses “through invitation until we've added all who want in-person learning.”
“While distance learning is working for many of our students, we also know that students benefit greatly from the socialization and structure that schools provide,” she said. “In addition, many of the parents in our community work and a distance-learning only format creates considerable hardship as families navigate work, home and schooling.”
Each campus will communicate directly with families regarding the specifics of a return to in-person learning for their students. There will be no bus service, so parents will have to make arrangements to get their children to school.
There will be strict rules for students and staff who interact on campus. Students must pass a temperature check (less than 100.4 degrees) each day before being allowed on campus. Face coverings or face masks are required for all students in third grade and above as well as all staff members; face coverings are strongly encouraged for younger students. Hand sanitizer will be available in every class and hand-washing stations installed on campuses. As much as possible, students will stay with the same group, or “cohort,” while they are on campus. Social distancing will be enforced as older students move between classes. Classrooms, playground equipment and cafeteria furniture will be disinfected daily. Free grab-and-go breakfasts and lunches will be provided for all students.
Each campus will have a special sick room for any student who becomes ill during the day. Children or staff members displaying COVID symptoms will be sent home and advised to see a physician. Even if they test negative for the virus, they cannot return to school for three days without a doctor’s note.
Separately, all staff members will be tested once every two months for COVID.
Metzger cautioned everyone that she does not believe the hybrid model is a long-term educational solution for students or staff.
“I have worked hard to keep things ‘reasonable and sustainable.’ Hybrid is not reasonable OR sustainable for the long haul with all of the distance-learning requirements,” she said. “A hybrid model overworks teachers and underserves students. We've approached it in a way that keeps our current distance learning in place, but first offers additional support, instruction and intervention for those who need it.”
If health conditions in the county allow and staffing supports it, Metzger said the district could “make changes to our hybrid model or move to a more traditional on-campus model (five days for all)” sometime after the first of the year.
“I know there are some in the community who would like the doors to be open wider, but the logistics are so complicated,” said Trustee Carmen Wilson.