Smiles all around as most Denair students return to campus

The calendar may say mid-April, but Monday felt more like mid-August – traditionally, the first day of school in the Denair Unified School District. Hundreds of students returned full time to Denair’s four campuses, some of them for the first time in more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Everyone — students, staff and parents — is excited to be on campus five days per week, and there was a positive vibe throughout the day,” said Kelly Beard, principal at Denair Elementary Charter Academy, where more than 80% of transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade students attended classes in person Monday. “It was great to see all the smiling faces and hear and see students interact and enjoy being on campus!”

The students whose parents chose not to have them return to campus now will stay on distance learning for the remainder of this school year, which ends in late May.

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Denair Middle School prepares for first dual language students

It’s been six years since the first class of Dual Language Immersion students began kindergarten at Denair Elementary Charter Academy. They’re now fifth-graders. The goal all along was to create a seamless English and Spanish education program that would continue through the Denair Middle School and, later, Denair High School. Now, that time is here.

Though the plan to transition that first class of 26 dual language students to DMS has been in motion for a couple of years, the sense of urgency has taken on a new focus. In August, that first group will begin at DMS.

Principal Amanda Silva promises that her staff will be ready.

“Something we recognize is that all our dual families are invested in the dual program,” she said. “The commitment they made at kindergarten is important to us. The challenge is to read and write in Spanish with the goal of becoming bilingual. Those families are very committed and invested and want to see us do it well. They want to see the return on that investment.”

For Silva, the Dual Language Immersion is more than professional; it’s personal, too. Her son Ezequiel is one of those DECA fifth-graders who will be starting at DMS next school year.

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Denair lengthens school day next week in preparation for resuming full-time class schedule for most students April 12

The Denair Unified School District will take another important step toward returning students to full-time in-person next week by expanding the amount of time children spend in class.

About 60% of Denair’s 1,300 K-12 students already receive face-to-face instruction multiple days of the week. Beginning Monday, their school days will be lengthened by 90 minutes at Denair Elementary Charter Academy and by two hours at Denair Middle School and Denair High School. Classes will let out about 1:30 p.m.

The changes were prompted by updated state and federal guidance regarding distancing between desks in classrooms, sanitation and other COVID-related safety precautions, Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger explained in letter to parents sent Monday. The moves also position the district to transition smoothly into full-time in-person instruction for all students on Monday, April 12, when students and staff return from spring break.

“Next week will allow us to work out the bugs so we’re ready for the last seven weeks of the school year after the break,” Metzger explained.
Between now and April 12, parents who prefer to keep their children on 100% distance learning for the remainder of this school year must formally notify the district of their choice. Those wishing to opt out of in-person learning can do so by completing a form
“If they do nothing, we assume their child is coming,” Metzger said.

Parents with specific questions about their child’s schedule, teachers and other plans should contact the administrators at those campuses, or go to their websites or Facebook pages. School officials also will be reaching out to parents with more information.

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Denair High Seniors – and Best Friends – Monte, Vega Both Honored in Countywide Art Contest

What are the odds of two best friends from the same small high school both being among just eight student artists to have their creations honored in a countywide contest with more than 300 entries? Probably pretty high.

Improbable as it may be, that’s exactly what happened to Denair High School seniors Ayla Monte and Kimberly Vega.

They were among the hundreds of Stanislaus County students who submitted work to the Office of Education in downtown Modesto. The office is undergoing some big renovations and officials there wanted to showcase student artwork.

“I think it’s a crazy coincidence that we were both picked together out of all the submissions,” said Vega.

“I thought it was funny at first that we both were chosen, but then I was shocked when I realized it was out of 300-plus entries,” Monte said. “It hit me then how huge of a deal the whole thing was.”

Denair art teacher John Stavrianoudakis said it’s appropriate Vega and Monte were selected because “they always seem to be together.”

“I guess I could describe them as full of life, witty, vivacious, independent young women who have a talent and interest for art,” Stavrianoudakis said. “It’s funny that they both got chosen, because I jokingly refer to them as ‘partners in crime’ because they are always hanging out together and are teaming up on doing the only ceiling tile painting that is being done this year due to COVID-19.”

The girls have known each other since middle school, they said, but became closer three years ago as sophomores. Neither showed the other what they were working on before their entries were submitted.

“I remember sending Kim little updates now and then, but the only time she saw the finished piece was when I submitted it for the art show,” Monte said.

“We normally don’t really show our work, but I do give Ayla pieces I’ve made,” Vega added.

The projects were part of school assignments made by Stavrianoudakis.

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Denair Officials Discuss Scenarios in Which More Students can Return to Campus; Expansion Likely After Spring Break

There was a strong consensus at Thursday’s Denair Unified School District board meeting about returning all students to the classroom as soon as is safely possible. The operative question – the one with no clear answer — was, “When?”

In a discussion that last more than a third of their three-hour meeting, trustees heard not only an update on the district’s COVID-related plans from Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger, but also emotional pleas via Zoom from two mothers who urged the district to bring students back to campus.

Like school districts all across the country, Denair pivoted to distance learning a year ago when the pandemic was declared. In November, small “learning cohorts” of students needing specific academic or emotional support were allowed to return from one to five days at Denair’s campuses. And then on March 1, more students were brought back part time with parental permission.

At Denair High School, for instance, about 70% of seniors were organized into small groups that receive in-person as well as online instruction on campus five days a week. At Denair Elementary Charter Academy, nearly 350 students have returned two days a week. At Denair Middle School, the number is  89. All told, about half of the district’s 1,300 students are back on campus at least part of the week. The rest remain 100% on distance learning, based on their parents’ preference.

Now, the challenge for Denair is how to expand face-to-face instruction while maintaining critical health safeguards for students and staff.

Metzger told trustees that the district expects to add more students on campus when classes resume April 12 after spring break. School days also are likely to lengthen for what would be the final seven weeks of this school year.

“The intent is to expand,” Metzger pledged, even as she acknowledged that half-days in class don’t always mesh with the schedules of working parents and that important services like busing and after-school care still will not be available.

Trustees encouraged district officials to do all they can to open campuses to as many students as possible. That came after two mothers shared the experiences of their children.

“Our kids are struggling. They’re hurting. They’re drowning,” said Leslie Van Gaalen, who transferred her elementary-age daughter to another district because her grades had suffered while on distance learning. “It’s time to get our kids back in school five days a week. Enough is enough.”

Andrea Bennett, whose son is a first-grader in DECA’s Dual Immersion Language program, said the past year has “taken a toll” on students and parents. She questioned why the district is poised to spend money on COVID tests so high school football games can be played “but is not spending money to put our kids in schools.”

“For those of us who want our kids back in school, we have no reasonable or sustainable options,” Bennett said. “All I hear are excuses about why we can’t. I need to hear why we can.”

Van Gaalen and Bennett were the first parents to address trustees at their monthly meeting since the district shut down campuses in March 2020.

“I empathize,” said Trustee Ray Prock Jr., who thanked the two women for speaking. “We’re doing everything we can to figure this out logistically to get more students in seats.”

Metzger said there are many barriers the district must overcome to expand face-to-face instruction for all students whose parents want it. Based on multiple surveys, that’s about 55% of the total student population.

Space is an issue, especially at DECA. Some of its smaller, older classrooms only have room for eight students because desks must be spaced at least 6 feet apart. Even on the other campuses, the largest classrooms can only accommodate about half the students in a normal class.

“There are some classrooms that will not hold more than 11 children,” Metzger said. “If we have 20 children and we can only hold 11, where do you put the other nine?”

Adding plexiglass shields between desks – similar to what has been done in school offices — is one possibility that could allow more students to be grouped together, Metzger said.

Staffing is another concern. Most teachers now must lead in-person as well as online classes – which divides their days and requires more preparation. If more students return to the classroom full time, some teachers will have to be reassigned to teach only online classes.

“If the board wants us to go full time, five days a week, it will require us to hire teachers for distance learning,” Metzger said.

Denair expects to receive an estimated $3.5 million in COVID relief funds — about $2.1 million from the feds and $1.4 million from the state — to help pay for various pandemic-related expenses. Only about $1.1 million has arrived so far, Chief Business Official Linda Covello told trustees. She expects the rest of the money to reach the district by September.

The district has spent about $640,000 so far, including $308,944 for 585 Chromebook computers so each student could have one and for 233 mobile hotspots to enable children to connect with teachers from home. More money was devoted to buying masks, face shields, plexiglass screens, hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and other items.

On Thursday, trustees earmarked $392,000 for a project with Climatec to update ventilation systems and equipment on all four Denair campuses to improve air flow in classrooms and other buildings. More money will be set aside to pay for biweekly or more frequent testing of all students and staff, which Covello estimated will cost between $80,000 and $150,000 for the rest of this school year. The rapid tests range from $5 to $10 each; if one turns up positive, then a more expensive PCR test is required.

Already, a Denair High student tested positive, resulting in that student and eight others, including their teacher, being quarantined for 10 days, Metzger said.

Though vaccinations are not mandatory, she said about 70 of Denair’s 200 employees have received at least one COVID shot.

With Stanislaus County still in the state’s purple tier – reflecting widespread COVID transmission – Denair remains committed to returning students to in-person instruction in a way that protects the children and the staff.

“We want to get as many kids on campuses with the resources we have,” said Trustee Crystal Sousa. “We know how devastating the past year has been on the kids and the teachers.”