Denair Maintains Cautious Approach to School Reopening

Unlike some school districts, Denair Unified has been measured and uber cautious in how it has reopened its four campuses in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Small groups of students began returning to class a few weeks ago in what are called “learning pods.”

In most cases, those students are either in special education, are English learners, are enrolled in Denair Elementary Charter Academy’s dual language immersion program or are in danger of failing one or more classes at the Denair High School or Denair Middle School. At Denair Charter Academy, some independent study students have resumed in-person weekly appointments with their teachers.

Though the vast majority of the district’s 1,300 students remain entirely on distance learning, this week 290 students participated in one or more days of in-person instruction. That’s consistent with the district’s conservative approach to reopening, Superintendent Terry Metzger told trustees during a Zoom meeting Thursday night.

While a few more students are starting next week, Metzger said, “We’re not going to expand until after Thanksgiving. We will determine how many students will come back to campus then and we’ll do the same thing after Christmas.”

The push to reopen comes as COVID cases have spiked in Stanislaus County, reflecting a nationwide surge. Like most school districts, Denair has relied on teachers connecting with students via computer since mid-March. But distance learning has taken its toll on families who have had to figure out how to care for children cooped up at home even as parents have tried to return to work.

Metzger said stress, anxiety and depression are real concerns for students, moms and dads, and the teaching staff. The district has a team of counselors and mental health clinicians available to help.

“Online with Zoom all day is exhausting (for students),” she said. “Parents are really stressed as well. They’ve been juggling this for a long time and they’re tired. Many of our employees are also feeling a lot of stress and reaching out to counselors for support.”

Still, the gradual integration of a limited number of students back to the classroom – with reduced class sizes, daily temperature checks, mandatory face coverings and other safety measures in place – is a small step toward normalcy.

“I don’t know who’s more excited – the kids or the adults,” said Denair High Principal Kara Backman.

Added DECA Principal Kelly Beard: “It’s been great having kids back. They’re very excited to see each other and their teachers.”

Much remains, however, before Denair or any other district can feel safe with more students and staff mixing on any campus. Metzger said there have been 871 COVID cases in the southeastern part of Stanislaus County, including 39 new ones in the past week. That’s not the highest number in the county, but a reminder that the virus is not going away — and neither is the need to continue to teach students of all ages via distance learning.

With that in mind, trustees also agreed Thursday to modifications in how students are graded for this school year only. Rather than rely only on traditional testing methods, students – mostly at the middle school and high school levels — may be given an opportunity to demonstrate understanding of subjects through assessments, projects, portfolios and other means appropriate to the course content.

“It’s really about allowing kids different ways of showing their mastery of subjects,” Metzger said. “It allows us some flexibility. It does not take away the ability of teachers to assign grades. It simply allows room to make adjustments in this really hard time.”

In other action Thursday, trustees:

  • Approved an increase in developer fees on new homes and commercial businesses built within the district’s boundary. The move means a raise from $3.79 per square foot for residential to $4.08 and an increase from $0.61 per square foot for commercial spaces to $0.66. The new fees take effect in 60 days.
  • Moved to accept a three-year grant worth $358,000 from the state Department of Rehabilitation that will be devoted to special education services.
  • Heard an update on the dual language immersion program planned for the next school year at Denair Middle School. The program teaches students in English and Spanish. It was started six years ago at DECA and the first group of students are now in fifth grade – and will be sixth-graders at DMS next year. Denair officials have visited other districts with dual language programs to evaluate schedules and curriculum.
  • Approved the formation of a National Honor Society at Denair High School. Members are nominated by teachers or the principal and must have at least a 3.5 grade-point average, take at least one Advanced Placement class each semester and perform 20 hours of community service per school year.
  • Heard Beard report that additional Chromebook computers and Wi-Fi hotspots have arrived at DECA, meaning the computers for students borrowed earlier from DHS and DMS can be returned after the Thanksgiving holiday.
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