The calendar may say mid-April, but Monday felt more like mid-August – traditionally, the first day of school in the Denair Unified School District. Hundreds of students returned full time to Denair’s four campuses, some of them for the first time in more than a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Everyone — students, staff and parents — is excited to be on campus five days per week, and there was a positive vibe throughout the day,” said Kelly Beard, principal at Denair Elementary Charter Academy, where more than 80% of transitional kindergarten through fifth-grade students attended classes in person Monday. “It was great to see all the smiling faces and hear and see students interact and enjoy being on campus!”
The students whose parents chose not to have them return to campus now will stay on distance learning for the remainder of this school year, which ends in late May.
Denair – like most school districts across the country — closed its campuses suddenly in March 2020 because of the pandemic and moved immediately to distance learning. In the fall, some students in need of specific academic or social/emotional help returned part-time on some campuses. Last month, the district moved to a hybrid approach, with many students receiving in-person instruction two days a week and distance learning the other three days.
Monday marked a key move toward a “normal” schedule, with more students on campus and a longer school day. Health precautions remain in place, with face coverings required for all students and staff, frequent handwashing required, plastics shields and limitations on the large gatherings.
Even those COVID-related reminders couldn’t dim the enthusiasm felt by everyone.
“The kids are ecstatic,” said Denair High Principal Kara Backman, who said 201 of her 273 students returned to campus. “They were playing music. Smiles were everywhere.”
At Denair Middle School, about 85% of sixth-, seventh- and eighth-graders attended class in person Monday, said Principal Amanda Silva.
“We all had first-day jitters, but it was a great first day,” she said. “It went by quickly.”
At Denair Charter Academy – which features home-schooling programs for K-8 students and independent study for high schoolers – Principal Breanne Aguiar said students were “elated to be with their peers.”
“It has been so awesome to see them socialize in the classrooms,” she added.
Despite a sea of face masks wherever she looked Monday, for Superintendent Terry Metzger, the predominant vibe of Denair’s campuses was “joy.”
“Smiling eyes, thumbs up, giggling, music and fist bumps all indicated a great day,” she said. “Kudos to our principals and staff for making it happen.”
One of Metzger’s best moments came when she asked a group of elementary students about the favorite part of their day.
“Every student, without fail, said first, ‘Seeing my teacher in person!’ ” Metzger said.
With only a month and a half left in the school year, all the school officials are hoping teachers and students can settle into a more normal routine before too long.
“The hope is to foster positive relationships with students and reinforce the home/school connection between now and the end of the school year,” Silva said.
Added Backman: “We want to have fun, hold students accountable to high levels of learning and make it feel as normal as possible.”