The state’s recent state-at-home order caused by surging COVID cases and dwindling intensive care space in regional hospitals will have no immediate effect on the Denair Unified’s ability to teach a limited number of students on campus, district trustees learned Thursday night.
“Schools are considered an essential sector, so we remain open,” Superintendent Terry Metzger told the board during a Zoom meeting.
Small groups of students began returning to Denair’s four campuses in early November in what are called “learning pods.” All told, only about a quarter of the district’s 1,300 students come to campus for one or more days of in-person instruction.
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.
The rest of Denair’s students still receive their lessons at home via distance learning as they have since the pandemic first closed campuses across California in March.
Metzger said that while some districts have announced they are returning 100% to distance learning because of the most recent stay-at-home order, “We’re not there yet.”
“We feel any risks are outweighed by benefit of interacting with their teachers. Even if it’s for just intervention and tutoring and talking,” she said.
The superintendent admitted there is a “collective weight” and “weariness” among staff trying to adapt to teaching online as well as in person.
“Nine months into the pandemic, the cost is that the staff is tired,” Metzger said. “We have to consider that as we make decisions. Students are feeling it, too. We have to be cognizant of how hard we’re pushing.”
Metzger said Denair continues to receive guidance from officials at the Stanislaus County Health Department and that any changes to the current on-campus teaching arrangement won’t be considered until after the holiday break is over.
“We’ll evaluate the conditions then and determine what comes next,” she said. “My mantra has been, ‘Is it reasonable and sustainable?’ We want to make sure our practices are reasonable and everything we do is sustainable for students and staff.”
Meanwhile, mandatory COVID testing – paid for by the district with state and federal funds — continues for all employees. It is required for everyone every two months. And earlier this week, it was announced sports teams at the high school who hoped to begin playing games after the first of the year had to stop practicing indefinitely.
Later in Thursday’s meeting, trustees dealt with a looming financial issue by moving to close
an estimated $151,593 gap in next year’s budget.
The board was warned in June that it could be in the position of deficit spending in the 2021-22 budget if it didn’t take action to cut ongoing expenses. Already, $41,327 has been saved through a combination of budget revisions ($15,076), a job reclassification ($10,177) and returning some special education students to the district ($16,074).
A committee composed of representatives from the board, administration, employee unions, parents and students met multiple times to identify other potential cost savings.
One option that could save an estimated $107,500 would be to reduce the district’s two bus routes to one. There is no bus service during the pandemic, but when in-person classes still were happening in the spring, 139 students were provided transportation to and from school.
If there were only one bus route, it likely would be available only to students who live more than four miles from campus, Metzger said.
Trustees expressed concern that reducing bus service could be a potential hardship to some families.
“I would want to know if these families are capable of bringing their kids to school,” said Trustee Crystal Sousa.
Trustee Carmen Wilson was a member of the deficit reduction committee. She said busing is “convenient for a lot of families and we don’t want that to be a reason they don’t come to Denair.”
Ultimately, trustees left it up to Metzger and Chief Business Official Linda Covello to identify about $110,000 in savings before the 2021-22 budget is adopted in June. Other areas under consideration include reductions in non-instructional services the district pays for, non-instructional memberships for staff, regional provider fees and overtime pay.
In other action Thursday, trustees:
- Approved a first interim budget report that shows the district will need to temporarily transfer money from one account to another four times in this fiscal year to pay its bills because of lagging funding from the state caused by the COVID pandemic. “Cash deferrals from the state … are affecting the district’s ability to maintain a positive cash balance,” Covello explained. Still, the district expects to end the 2020-21 budget year with an operating fund balance of $919,629.
- Heard a report from high school Principal Kara Backman about a nine-week program that involved 66 students. Called “Make Your Passion Your Paycheck, What Is Your Genius Factor?” the program is intended to open students’ eyes about potential careers. Among those participating was student board member Pureza Avila, who said the program inspired her to switch her career goal from being an accountant to becoming an immigration lawyer.
Listened to updates from three campuses about how parent clubs are still finding ways to support staff and students despite the pandemic.