During a remote Berkeley School Board meeting Wednesday, officials discussed a new “distance learning” plan. Screenshot: Zoom

Berkeley Unified released its highly anticipated “distance learning plan” Wednesday, establishing a weekly structure wherein all students will work on remote assignments and occasionally interact with teachers while the COVID-19 crisis keeps schools closed.

The plan will be phased in beginning the week of April 6, after students return from spring break and the day that BUSD initially expected to reopen its campuses. A Bay Area-wide order Wednesday to keep schools closed until at least May officially squashed that plan, and previous orders from the state pushed districts to come up with comprehensive protocols for online learning.

“This is a complete recalibration of public education,” said the Berkeley School Board’s Julie Sinai, at a Wednesday meeting held remotely on Zoom.

Under the new plan — which district staff were permitted to pursue without an official vote by the board — groups of “teacher leaders” will form to come up with weekly assignments for students. In elementary school, all students in a given grade level will receive the same assignments. In grades 6-12, lessons will be geared toward specific courses, like Spanish 2 or ethnic studies.

Those weekly assignment plans could include pre-recorded video lessons from teachers, suggestions for specific online learning activities, writing prompts and exercise routines. Individual teachers can still assign their own homework and projects, the district said.

All teachers will also be required to hold online “office hours” for two 90-minute sessions a week, where students can check in with their instructors or participate in more structured activities. The amount of time students are expected to be learning and sitting in front of screens increases by grade level, and the plan document urges instructors to understand that some students will adapt more easily to online schooling than others. BUSD has also been distributing Chromebooks to families who don’t have sufficient technology access.

“These efforts cannot possibly replicate the rich variety of experiences that we offer on our campuses, and many aspects of the BUSD experience will be lost during these closures,” wrote Superintendent Brent Stephens in a letter to families announcing the plan.

The state of California has not required districts to take attendance during the closures, promising to continue providing the funding that is usually dependent on that data regardless. BUSD will track student participation in the “office hours” nonetheless, mainly to identify who needs extra support and attention, the plan says. Exactly how and when students will be graded is still being worked out, but BUSD is considering a pass/fail option for the semester, depending on guidance from the state.

The district is also awaiting direction from the state and university systems on graduation requirements.

“BUSD is committed to ensuring that all students are able to continue with their post-graduation plans and are not adversely affected by the school closures,” the plan says.

English Language Development teachers will stay in touch with their students and “attempt to continue” their classes, the plan says. Special education teachers will do similar. Providing legally mandated special education during school closures has been the most challenging task for Berkeley and other districts this month. Students with Individualized Education Plans often receive highly customized supports throughout the day, whether that’s an aide in certain classes, extra time on tests, or group education settings. The BUSD plan says some of those accommodations simply won’t be possible to replicate digitally, and that aspects of IEPs can be renegotiated under the new circumstances.

A sign on a door at Malcolm X Elementary says the school will reopen April 6. This week, that date was officially pushed back to May 1. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Much of the BUSD distance learning plan was based on information collected in a survey of hundreds of Berkeley teachers, determining technology access and savviness and what educators were already doing on their own. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers and BUSD administrators reached an agreement early on that all district staff would be paid for the duration of the closures. Teachers will receive professional development on distance learning as well.

In an email to Berkeleyside, Stephens said that while the plan will go into effect April 6, the district expects there will be hiccups and easing-in required for both students and staff.

“Teachers will begin by establishing connections with students and families and sharing recommended learning schedules that break up daily screen time with other activities. During this first week teachers will help students and families understand how to access online resources, view short instructional videos, and participate in their office hours,” he wrote. “We don’t expect that all of our educators will gain proficiency with remote learning technology by April 6. In the early stages, some teachers may rely on email, and we expect a wide variety of technical issues will occur for teachers and students in the first few weeks that we try distance learning as a whole district.”

At Wednesday’s board meeting, Stephens pleaded with families to “please be patient with us.”

“This is a revolutionary sea change and we’re trying to do it in about five days,” he said.

Since the schools closed, many parents have expressed frustration with with a lack of details shared by the district on what distance learning would and should look like. Initially, BUSD only posted links to optional, grade-specific online learning programs on its website and left it up to teachers to decide whether they had contact with their students.

Many parents have struggled to homeschool their children while juggling their regular jobs, asking the district for more hands-on help. Some tuned into the board meeting Wednesday to beg for more structure and, after the plan was unveiled, to express concerns that there still would not be enough direct interaction between teachers and students.

Hasmig Minassian, a Berkeley High teacher who also “attended” the Zoom board meeting, urged everyone to “take a collective breath.”

“This is a really difficult moment for everyone,” she said. She told other attendees that she believes district and school leaders have been doing their best to distill ever-changing information and communicate it quickly.

As Minassian and her colleagues prepare to implement the distance learning plan after break, lurking behind that work is the threat of widespread coronavirus infection among BUSD staff and families in the coming weeks.

Stephens said the plan is designed to not depend wholly on individual teachers’ availability, but on the ability of the “teacher leader” groups to get assignments out.

Even so, he said, disruption is likely — and some students might be dealing with tragedy and illness as well.

“I suspect there are going to be many sectors of society impacted by an ill workforce,” Stephens said at the board meeting. “We’ve got a lot of thinking to do about that. Right now we’re begging for patience.”

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Natalie Orenstein

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...