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.”