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Students, Teachers Make Connections For New Year
Fifth grade teacher Chris Casazza, foreground, goes over some specifics as a student and parent drive through the Dent Elementary back to school event on Friday, Aug. 7. In the background is bilingual instructional assistant Maggie Ruiz, also checking in students and parents. Marg Jackson/The Times

Distance learning is up and running for students and staff in the Escalon Unified School District.

The past week saw a flurry of activity on local campuses, with distribution of books, devices, schedules and more. Students arrived at schools with parents or guardians, driving in to meet teachers and pick up their necessary items to begin school on Aug. 12.

On Friday at Dent Elementary, it was the fifth grade teachers who manned the pop-up tents, along with several support staff members and administrators, to provide information, encouragement and tools for learning in an online classroom.

“We’re going to make the best of it,” said parent Andrea Gonzalez, who has a fifth grader at Dent.

Gonzalez also works at Dent and said her daughter is excited for the new school year, even though it won’t start in the traditional ‘back to school’ way.

“We’ll spend a lot of time together,” Gonzalez noted of she and her daughter. “She’s really excited about that, too.”

Dent Principal Anthony Varni was there to greet all arrivals and direct them in the proper way to drive through the set up to check in, meet their teacher, and more.

“It is going smoothly,” noted Dent bilingual instructional assistant Maggie Ruiz, who said everyone seemed to be staying positive.

For student Hayden Taylor, he said the part he will miss the most about not being able to return to the Dent campus is “being social” and having the chance to talk face to face with his friends.

But, he isn’t looking at distance learning as necessarily a bad thing.

“I’m feeling good about it,” the fifth grader said. “I have high hopes for the online classes. I’m looking forward to just having a good year.”

Teacher Debbie Parks was one of several fifth grade teachers preparing the bags for her students and said the kids seemed to enjoy the chance to greet their teachers and the Dent staff, even if it was just from the passenger seat of a vehicle.

“I will be teaching from home for the most part,” Parks said. “I will go back and forth but teach mostly from home, I am blessed to have the technology to do that.”

Classes at all levels, at all school sites, began for students via the distance learning platform. Students have not been in classrooms since mid-March, when schools shut down abruptly due to the coronavirus.

Since then, and with lessons learned during the spring semester, district officials said they have a better action plan in place and feel confident with the improved approach to distance learning.

Third grade teacher Becky Head, while not greeting students on Friday, was nonetheless busy in her classroom on the Dent campus. She plans to do most of her teaching from there. She is starting her 13th year with the district and has spent the past eight of them at Dent.

“I’m working on staying in the moment, I have lists everywhere … just trying to take it as it comes,” she said of shifting to an all online teaching platform.

She added that, “although there is much unknown” about the ongoing pandemic situation, she feels like the district has a solid plan in place for students and teachers.

“It will be a real school day with real interaction with my kids,” she said. “That’s what our goal and effort is, daily direct lessons with teachers and also teachers giving feedback.”

She feels everyone has had a chance to catch their collective breath.

“In the spring our heads were spinning and we were really just trying to offer support,” she pointed out. “What we do best is our relationships … we have a focused plan and the ultimate goal of instruction.”

She praised the other members of the third grade team at Dent, saying Sheri Irion, Alex Hererra, Angie Titsworth and Matt Gregory were invaluable in helping her get prepared.

“I honestly do not know where I would be without their grip of technology,” she said.

Other school sites also had pick up days and times for equipment and books this past week, with Friday a busy one at El Portal Middle School.

Choir teacher Katie Steffanic was on hand to help guide students and parents, checking them in as they drove on to the El Portal campus.

She said over the past few months there has been a huge improvement in online music resources, with several “upping their game” in view of California schools being online to start the year.

She also said for her students, they will be working on performance projects as opposed to group performances and they will be posted on the district website.

“We’ve got a plan,” Steffanic said. “I’m way more comfortable than in the spring.”

The new school year also sees new personnel joining staffs at several sites.

They include: Nelarie Romo, Director of Student Services; Trista Childs and Cynthia Van Buren, Gateway; Aleksaandra Courtney, Math, Escalon High School; Susan Davis, CTE at Escalon High; Joseph Dalpogetti, P.E. at El Portal; Steven Damron, English, El Portal; Michelle Townsend, sixth grade, El Portal; Steffany Hernandez-Ruiz and Angelica Vargas Rodriguez, DLI teachers at Collegeville; Brooke Silva, first grade, Farmington; Taylor Wondolowski, kindergarten, Dent.

Taking some time to prepare lessons and her classroom, where she plans to do most of her teaching via online platforms, was third grade teacher Becky Head, gearing up for distance learning with her students at Dent Elementary. Marg Jackson/The Times
El Portal Middle School administrative assistant Amber Dimas was among those on hand Friday to help get information and materials out to students and parents in preparation for the start of distance learning to begin the new school year. Marg Jackson/The Times