Even as students, staff and administrators deservedly were praised by Denair Unified School District trustees Thursday night for the ways they have adapted to distance learning and delivered lessons online during the COVID-19 pandemic, the question on everyone’s mind was, “When will education be normal again and students return to class?”
The simple answer is no one knows. As school board President Crystal Sousa acknowledged after a long discussion about various options: “I know parents want kids back in school. I know everyone wants kids back in school. But it’s a logistical nightmare.”
Six months after face-to-face classes were suspended by the pandemic, Superintendent Terry Metzger said the district still has no clarity about when students can return to campus. That’s because Stanislaus County remains at the highest level (purple) on the state’s COVID color-coded watch list, and the health and safety of students and staff remains the No. 1 priority.
Through Thursday, according to the county’s public health website, there have been 15,749 COVID cases in the county and, sadly, 303 deaths. In the unincorporated part of the county that includes Denair, there have been 696 coronavirus cases.
The number of people testing positive for COVID in the county is 10.3%. The infection rate here remains among the highest in the state – roughly 14.1 people out of everything 100,000 residents. Until those numbers are reduced, the chances of schools safely reopening are slim.
Still, the state has created a system in which school districts may request waivers to bring elementary students back to campus under very controlled circumstances. The waivers must be approved by county and state officials. Already, there have a handful of applications in Stanislaus County, mostly among private schools but also including public districts in Oakdale and Roberts Ferry.
Metzger and her team, including Principal Kelly Beard of Denair Elementary Charter Academy, have explored scenarios under which a limited amount of DECA students could return to school. The district also recently surveyed parents, staff and students in grades four through 12 about their feelings about in-person and online instruction.
Metzger said of the more than 300 parental responses received that “about half our community wants school back five days a week and half don’t want students to return at all until it’s safe. There were very few responses in the middle.”
For now, the waivers would only apply to children up to fifth grade. Students in middle school and high school will be taught via distance learning for the foreseeable future.
Metzger said Denair officials will continue to reach out to parents and teachers to discuss what a reopening might look like, whether through a waiver or because the county’s overall COVID statistics have dropped to the next color tier (red).
“Nothing says we have to reopen at the red tier,” Metzger said. “Any plan also must have ‘triggers’ to switch back to distance learning if a student or staff member gets sick. It’s already happened in Modesto City Schools. … I think that’s potentially harder for families, to be shuffled. It’s like, ‘Yay, woohoo. Let’s get our routine down.’ And then it’s back to distance learning.”
Any reopening in Denair almost certainly would occur under a “hybrid learning model” in which students would come to campus for face-to-face instruction one or two days a week in small groups, or cohorts, and remain on distance learning the other days.
Beard said the logistics of a hybrid arrangement are very complicated. For instance, a class with 28 students would be divided in half, with the same 14 students always grouped together. Regular testing and contract tracing procedures for students and staff would have to be in place. Classrooms would have to be rearranged so desks are at least 6 feet apart. All students in third grade and above would be required to wear masks; younger students would be strongly encouraged to. All teachers and staff also would have to wear face coverings. There would be no sharing of classroom supplies. Students couldn’t use playground equipment at recess. Bus capacity would be cut in half and siblings would have to sit together while keeping their distance from other passengers. Lunches would have to be staggered or food sent home with students.
Because on-campus teachers would still have to interact daily with the half of their students using distance learning, Beard said, “I don’t see any way to keep students on campus all day. Probably 3½ or four hours. They would leave with assignments to do at home.”
In some cases, Beard said, students might have to be assigned new teachers, a potential disruption to the “learning process and the relationships teachers have built with students.”
Metzger said nothing will be decided until at least October, when trustees will be presented with an update and could move ahead with a waiver application, if they want.
In the meantime, she said, “We have high expectations. We want to maintain a rigorous education program.”
The feedback from the recent survey indicated concern about student workloads and the ability of technology to keep up in every household, Metzger said. In addition, the feedback showed students and parents are grateful for what teachers are doing to provide quality lessons.
“Students know teachers are trying very hard and that this is not an easy situation for everyone,” Metzger said.
In other action Thursday night, trustees:
- Approved the unaudited 2019-20 budget report presented by Chief Business Official Linda Covello. It shows the district with an ending balance of $1.3 million, slightly more than expected because of some purchases in the spring that were delayed by the COVID situation. Salaries and benefits accounted for 79% of spending, Covello said, up from about 70% the previous year. Trustees also were reminded that initial budget projections show district spending exceeding revenue in 2021-22 and 2022-23.
- Agreed to a memorandum of understanding with Hazel Health to provide free health services to students. The pilot program begins Sept. 18 via tele-health while students are distance learning and will continue at school when students return. A grant from the Emanuel Medical Center Foundation in Turlock is paying for the program, which includes a behavioral health platform.
- Swore in the two new student members of the board, Pureza Avila and Estefany Flores.
- Awarded a Certification of Appreciate to Scott Hatch of the Technology Department for his hard work on multiple projects.