All the excitement and energy that accompanies the beginning of a new school year were evident this week in the Denair Unified School District as more than 1,300 students returned to in-person instruction Wednesday. They were greeted by teachers and other staff thrilled to welcome them back.
The energy was infectious, but the ongoing impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic still were evident across Denair’s four campuses. The most obvious example is that the smiles of students and staff were hidden by face coverings — at least in the classroom, where masks still are required.
Denair – like hundreds of school districts across California – must adhere to health and safety guidance handed down by the California Department of Public Health and federal Centers for Disease Control. That means masks still must be worn in class, though they can be taken off outdoors. Other precautions like temperature temps, social distancing and testing also have been relaxed.
“It’s very confusing that the state’s guidance is called ‘guidance,’ ” explained Denair Superintendent Terry Metzger at Thursday night’s monthly Board of Trustees meeting. “We’ve been told over and over that these are public health orders that we are mandated to follow.”
About a half-dozen parents showed up at the meeting to express their opposition to mandatory masks.
“This is not the America that I grew up in,” said Marie Stucker. “I have three children in the district. They love it here. But my children have anxiety about wearing masks for five hours.”
She questioned why it’s OK for people to go into a restaurant, take off their masks and sit down for hours, but students can’t do the same in class. She also claimed that mask mandates potentially violate the state Constitution and California Education Code, holding up an orange binder with information she has collected.
“We’re 18 months into this; if masks and vaccines work so well, why are we still here?” asked Stucker.
Earlier, Metzger had shared some health statistics that vividly underscored COVID and the dangerous delta variant are not going away:
- In July, 193 children ages 11 were diagnosed with confirmed COVID cases in Stanislaus County
- In the same month, 159 children ages 12 to 17 in the county had confirmed cases
- Together, those numbers were a 421% increase from June and “those numbers are even higher in August,” Metzger said
- Stanislaus County’s test positivity rate for everyone has risen to 11%, up from 3.4% the previous month
- The county’s overall vaccination rate stands at just 37%, including only 25% for kids 12-17
All those numbers underscore the need not just for masks in class, but continued caution, said Metzger, adding that Denair’s legal and insurance experts have said the district could risk liability if it doesn’t follow the state’s rules. Earlier this week, Gov. Gavin Newsom also announced that all teachers in the state must be vaccinated or submit to regular COVID testing. Metzger said the district already has begun collecting that data from its staff.
Still, parent Andrea Bennett portrayed mask wearing as a matter of freedom. She compared COVID to the flu and common cold, which are present every year but don’t spur mandatory mask wearing.
“My argument is for choice, to make decisions for our own body,” said Bennett, adding she would sign a waiver for her children to get around legal issues.
The speakers wanted trustees to appeal to state officials and attempt to exert local control over the wearing of masks. Some local school boards – including in Modesto and Hughson – have chosen to send letters to the state on the topic, but Denair will not do so. Trustees advised the parents to contact the state directly themselves.
“I appreciate your feelings,” Trustee Carmen Wilson told the speakers in the audience. “I think it’s important to see there are two sides and to present those sides. I feel as a board member I have a responsibility to our community, which means listening but also helping them understand what the state requires us to do. For us to deviate from them we might be derelict in our duties.”
Trustee Ray Prock Jr. voiced support for another suggestion made by Bennett – to do an anonymous survey of parents and students to see who supports wearing masks in class. But Trustee Crystal Sousa wondered if merely conducting such a survey would give participants “false hope” that Denair might buck the state’s rules. The idea went no further.
“Our funding is tied to following orders from the state,” Sousa said. “They could pull funding from us. That’s the honest to God truth. Millions of dollars we’ve already spent.”
Summed up Wilson: “From my perspective, we don’t have a choice. I feel we’re obligated to follow the mandate. Until the mandates change, I don’t feel we can pivot.”
In other action Thursday night, trustees:
- Heard reports from all managers, including Denair High Principal Kara Backman, who reported enrollment there increased by 19 students to 296.
- Voiced support for a proposal to rename the high school athletic facilities the “Denair Lions Club Sports Complex.” The Lions Club has supported the school’s sports programs in various ways for many decades. “They’ve been amazing,” Metzger complimented. Signs would be erected in two entrances on the campus. Trustees could vote on the proposal in September.
- Heard a report from ag teacher and FFA adviser Holli Jacobsen about results from the Stanislaus County Fair this summer. More than a dozen students participated. The top finishers were second-place ribbons won by Julian Zavala in Whiteface Cross sheep and Destiny Lama in swine market showmanship.
- Approved a plan to spend about $3,000 to send 10 FFA students and two advisers to the national convention Oct. 26-31 in Indianapolis. The Ag Boosters will cover cost of transportation and meals.
- Heard a report about the district’s summer programs. Elementary Summer Principal Laura Cardenas said more than 300 children participated in 27 different camps in June. A participant survey showed 97% of respondents want to have them again next year. Metzger said it already has been accounted for in the 2021-22 budget. High school Summer Principal Jamie Pecot said 124 students enrolled in either cyber high classes or completed courses they failed last year to earn credits toward graduation.