Denair School Leaders Discuss Distance Learning Plans

Submitted by Denair Unified School District:

The COVID-19 pandemic may have closed down campuses for the rest of this school year, but learning still will occur in the Denair Unified School District. It will just take a much different form, district trustees were told Thursday night at a board meeting that itself reflected the social distancing required to confront the threat from the virus.

Only Superintendent Terry Metzger and Trustees Crystal Sousa, Ray Prock Jr., Carmen Wilson and Regina Gomes gathered in the board meeting room at the district office. They all were separated by at least 6 feet. Trustee Kathi Dunham-Filson and student board member Logan Pierce participated via Zoom video conference as did other administrators, teachers, staff and community members.

Predictably, much of the focus of the meeting was on the impact of the coronavirus outbreak on Denair’s 1,300 preschool through 12th-grade students as well as the staff. Metzger spoke at length about what has happened in the three weeks since Stanislaus County health officials shut down all public schools March 19 as well as what Denair students and parents should expect when distance learning begins April 20 after spring break.

The key takeaways: There still will be grades, computers will be made available to those students who need them, meals will be provided to those who need them and emphasis will be placed on students “completing the concepts” of the courses they’re studying.

“It’s all about ‘How do we set up our kids for success?’ ” Metzger explained. “We also recognize that distance learning is not the same as classroom instruction. It could be a combination of online and paper packets and projects. … Each school is approaching things slightly differently. The elementary school looks different than middle school, which looks different from DCA and the high school.”

Two weeks ago, when it became clear that face-to-face classes would not resume, teachers began calling parents. More than 600 families were contacted. Information was gathered about their needs in the areas of academics and technology, and other needs such as food or mental health.

The responses were analyzed. In some cases – as with food – the district already was providing free breakfasts and lunches Monday through Friday to students who need them. In other situations, as with child care or mental health, district officials connected families with appropriate local agencies or providers.

Metzger said the survey revealed that about 60% of Denair families had reliable Internet and enough devices at home for their children to access online classes and information. For all the others, some of the district’s 1,000 Chromebook computers and free wi-fi service have been made available. Some families already have picked up the small laptops; others will do so via appointment beginning April 20. Like with the food distribution, the plan is to have parents drive through the parking lot and sign a device out in an effort to limit person-to-person contact.

Teachers have been preparing online lessons, Metzger said. “We’re really trusting teachers to make those connections with kids.”

Especially at the high school level, keeping seniors on track to graduate is a focus. Teachers will pay special attention, Metzger said, to students in danger of failing. Instructors will have “office hours” where any student can contact them to discuss or clarify an assignment. There will be no traditional finals or state testing, but high school students enrolled in Advanced Placement (AP) courses still will be required to take tests in order to earn college credits.

Metzger said the high school and middle school will distribute work each Monday — online or via packets picked up at school. The assignments will be due by Thursday and teachers will grade them on Friday.

At Denair Elementary Charter Academy, there is less emphasis on Chromebook assignments and more on hands-on learning. Information packets will be distributed with enough work for multiple weeks.

“It’s not about kids doing worksheets,” Metzger. “Kids can do math through cooking or counting the steps to the mailbox. They can do science by gardening. You can do flash cards.”

Families with special education students also have been contacted by district staff and teachers in the past three weeks, Metzger said. Individual Education Programs (IEPs) have been modified for each student.

The school closure has touched each student, each family, each employee. Field trips, sports contests, after-school clubs and events like the prom have been cancelled. High school graduation – which means so much not just to students, but the entire community – has been put on hold.

So much change has happened in so little time that it can feel overwhelming for everyone.

“We’re thinking very carefully about what to do,” Metzger said. “How do kids finish a course and still be held harmless for the situation they’re in?”

In other action Thursday night, trustees:

  • Agreed to a three-year contract with the California School Employees Association, which represents 118 non-teachers in the district. Included is a 1% salary increase. The new agreement, which goes through the 2021-22 school year, already has been ratified by union members.
  • Approved the charter renewal petition for DECA. It now moves to the California Department of Education for final approval.
  • Approved new math and ag courses that will begin next year at Denair High School.
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