The Denair Unified School District continues to cautiously explore ways to return more of its 1,300 students to campus, possibly as soon as March 1.
At Thursday night’s Board of Trustees meeting, Superintendent Terry Metzger sketched out scenarios in which about half the district’s elementary students and a portion of its high school seniors could receive in face-to-face instruction for the first time in nearly a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
A final decision on moving to Phase 2 of the district’s hybrid learning plan likely won’t be made until at least Feb. 22, Metzger explained, and will be guided by health statistics in Stanislaus County. While the number of local COVID cases, hospitalizations and patient deaths have declined recently, the county still has one of the highest rates of infection per capita in California and remains in the state’s most restrictive purple tier.
The county’s COVID dashboard shows than 53,600 residents have been sickened by the coronavirus and 888 have died. Equally as important, Metzger told trustees, is that there have been about 1,600 COVID cases in the southern portion of the county in the past month, underscoring the need to remain cautious about reopening schools.
“January was a terrible month (for COVID cases), but things are getting better,” she said.
Like many school districts, Denair closed its campuses last March and moved all its students to distance learning. In November, as part of its Phase 1 hybrid plan, small numbers of students at all grade levels were allowed to return as part of “learning cohorts,” with priority going to youngsters needing academic and emotional support.
Phase 2, Metzger told trustees, could include as many as 300 of Denair Elementary Charter Academy’s 550 kindergarten through fifth-graders. Some would come to campus Monday and Tuesday; others on Thursday and Friday. All would remain on distance learning the other three days. Siblings would attend class the same days to make it easier for parents to coordinate schedules. In-person classes would run from 8 to 11:30 a.m.
At Denair High School, Metzger said the priority is to have seniors to return to campus first to allow them to experience at least a portion of their final year on campus. Students would attend school five days a week in “small, stable groups with one or two teachers for the whole instructional day (8 a.m. to noon),” Metzger said. Those who need additional help could remain on campus for another hour after lunch.
Roughly 40 of the 66 members of the Class of 2021 have indicated they would return in March if allowed, the superintendent said.
“They missed the end of their junior years and all of their senior years so far,” she said. “We’ll determine what it looks like for other students once we get the seniors settled.”
Although planning is underway, no specifics were outlined Thursday night for Denair Middle School, where about 70% of the parents surveyed last fall wanted their children to remain 100% on distance learning.
Denair’s consideration of a March 1 return is consistent with local, state and national efforts to bring students to campuses. The Stanislaus County Department of Education has set a goal of having middle and high school students with parental permission back in class by March 15.
Metzger said there still is much that must happen before in-person instruction resumes.
More masks and face coverings must be received, signage installed to enforce social distancing and safety measures – including enhanced ventilation for classrooms – put in place. Vaccinations for all school employees are not required before students return, though some adults have received one or more shots. Metzger said Denair is working with the Turlock Unified School District on a plan to have both districts’ school nurses help staff a potential vaccine location to give shots to teachers and other employees. Final details are dependent on the availability of vaccine, she said.
In the meantime, some signs of normal school activity have return, at least at the high school. Students on the cross country, tennis and golf teams have begun competing. Conditioning continues for football players, who could begin practice March for a season that would end no later than April 16, said Coach Anthony Armas.
Earlier in the meeting, the board approved a memorandum of understanding with the Denair Unified Teachers Association regarding COVID and hybrid learning protocols. The district and DUTA worked collaboratively to develop safety precautions, clarify district responsibilities, and set expectations for teaching and learning.
Metzger said the district’s core principles -- “Reasonable and sustainable, and how do we keep staff and students safe” – will continue to drive the decision about when and how to reopen Denair’s campuses.
In other action Thursday night, trustees:
— Heard an update on the financial savings resulting from their decision to hire Climatec in November 2019 to manage a $2.5 million upgrade for heating, cooling, lighting and irrigation systems. Chief Business Officer Linda Covello said the district saved $155,000 from January 2020 to November 2020, almost all of it related to water use. As intended, those savings will be applied to the first lease payment of $126,000 due in May for the new equipment.
— Passed the 2021-22 school calendar. Classes will begin Aug. 11 and wind up with high school graduation May 27, 2022. The schedule includes a week off for Thanksgiving, a winter break from Dec. 18 through Jan. 3, two three-day weekends in February and spring break from April 15-24.
— Heard a report about the two-year charter renewal application for Denair Charter Academy, an independent study for teens and home-schooling program for K-8 youngsters that serves nearly 300 students.
— Approved the 2021-22 safety plan, which for the first time groups all of the district’s four campuses – which sit together in close proximity on about 90 acres.
— Agreed to apply for a special loan program from the Stanislaus County Office of Education just in case it’s needed for cash flow reasons. Covello said that the COVID crisis has delayed state funding – payments due in February won’t be received until November. Denair has been able to pay its bills by temporarily moving money from one account to another, but now will be able to access short term loans of up to $4,724,189, if necessary.