empty school yard with building in the background
A BUSD town hall focused on the temporary suspension of live online classes while Berkeley schools are closed. Above: A deserted Emerson Elementary School. Photo: Pete Rosos

A virtual town hall held by Berkeley Unified on Thursday was dominated by parental frustration at the temporary suspension of live online classes this week.

District leaders repeatedly tried to assure parents that they’re working furiously to get a safer instructional method in place, while exasperated parents accused them of “failing” to achieve their educational mission.

BUSD suspended video-conference classes this week after a naked adult “Zoombomber” posed as a student and was let into a Berkeley High class session to yell out slurs. It was only the second day that the district’s official “distance learning” plan was in effect.

Superintendent Brent Stephens said he immediately put a pause on the use of Zoom and similar services out of concern that the same Zoombomber or others could show up in younger students’ classes. He told town hall participants that he was disturbed that the incident occurred even though the teacher was using a BUSD Zoom account which had password protection and other security measures enabled.

Providing “a safe learning environment free from harassment is not just a moral principle but a legal obligation,” Stephens said.

Many families had waited anxiously through the first weeks of school closures and spring break for some more structure and direct teacher contact, only to get it taken away as soon as it was offered. On Thursday, parents said they were willing to risk more nudity if it meant their kids could also see their teachers and peers.

“If someone had indecently exposed themselves in front of our kids while at school, we wouldn’t have shut down schools for a week,” said Melanie Schoenberg, parent of a Silvia Mendez second grader. “The one stable part of my child’s life has been classroom Zoom sessions. Please empower our teachers and our room parents to make decisions about the education needed by our children.”

“Safety is a value; community is also a value,” said Jefferson parent Brooke Warner, who said she’s a single parent who’s also working. “The social engagement my son has — not only with his teachers but with his fellow students — is frankly more important to me than being flashed on a screen.” 

Stephens, speaking in a measured tone throughout the meeting, told parents he’s been moved to learn how much Zoom lessons have meant to families. He told Berkeleyside earlier this week that he’s concerned himself about the isolation his own daughter is experiencing with her school closed.

The superintendent said BUSD is weighing a number of options — adding more Zoom security measures, requiring parent permission slips, downsizing classes, or switching to other software instead — and intends to whittle them down Friday. He said BUSD has been trying to work with Zoom to allow students to sign in through Clever, a portal that authenticates users, but hasn’t been able to.

Stephens told parents he understands that live lessons “have made a profound difference in your children’s sense of isolation and connection, and it was really a light at the end of a tunnel for your students. We’re working very quickly, as hard as we can.” 

close up of middle-aged man's face during a video call
Superintendent Brent Stephens addressed Berkeley families during a virtual town hall Thursday, along with members of his cabinet. Image: Zoom

School Board President Judy Appel struck a more defensive note, asking parents to have some empathy for the staff forced to completely overhaul an entire district’s educational program.

“I guess I’m feeling very protective and supportive of the district,” she said. “Try to ask yourself, when you question a decision the district has made, why was this decision made and what were the factors? Rather than, wow, this was a stupid decision and I could have done that better. I know that’s hard.”

At least one parent was not appreciative of Appel calling the Zoom suspension “a bummer,” saying the phrase was dismissive of the damage done.

Grades, graduation, guidance

Districts staff also ran down where other aspects of BUSD’s operations stand a few weeks after all campuses were shuttered in response to COVID-19.

All second-semester grades will be “pass or no pass,” instead of the typical letter range, Stephens said. California’s universities have said they’ll accept those marks. Stephens has repeatedly said he’ll ensure the pandemic does not prevent any senior who was on track to graduate from doing so.

“Some students have full-time child care relationships, or students are picking up extra shifts because their parents are now unemployed,” Stephens told Berkeleyside. “As you start to stack up the circumstances it becomes clear that anything other than pass/no pass would be unfair.”

Providing an education to students with special needs and disabilities during the closures has been one of the most challenging tasks for BUSD and other districts. While federal laws mandating accommodations for special-ed students remain active, California’s distance-learning requirement prevents many of those features from being carried out. Some students are entitled to physical therapy or a certain number of hours of one-on-one instruction, for example, which might not be possible virtually, especially if a student’s disability makes technology use difficult.

Stephens said BUSD will provide new guidance to special educators shortly, and has been working out accommodations on a case-by-case basis. Speech and occupational therapists have also switched to virtual sessions.

Asked by Berkeleyside whether he’s nervous about the legal ramifications of following state guidance at the expense of federal law, Stephens said: “I’m generally nervous these days.”

Some aspects of the coming weeks are still up in the air, including what graduation will look like for high schoolers and what will happen over the summer.

Stephens is preparing to propose to the School Board that campuses remain closed the rest of the year, following recommendations from regional and state officials. But he told a parent that he’d love to reopen schools briefly if guidance changes.

Catherine Alexander and Melody Cooper bring free lunches to families at Willard Middle School. Photo: Pete Rosos

While on the East Coast “snow days” are often tacked back on to the end of the year, Stephens said an extended school year would be impossible without significant financial support from the state. But BUSD is considering starting kids off in their old classes for the first few weeks of the fall to ease the transition.

In the coming days, “teacher leaders” will be customizing the distance learning curriculum for specific grades and courses, and BUSD will begin distributing musical instruments, staff said.

Schools Fund rallies volunteers, raises $350,000 in aid

Schools have always provided students with more than a traditional education. Most significantly, schools are where more than 20 million students in the U.S. eat lunch for free. For others, school is the only place where they can access the internet, or health care.

For some BUSD departments and volunteers, the pandemic has only amplified the need to provide families with basic supplies and assistance.

BUSD has already dolled out about 2,000 Chromebooks, according to the district, and has offered a free takeout meal program since day one.

The Berkeley Public Schools Fund, which typically gives teachers grants for elaborate science projects or field trips, is now providing “emergency assistance” directly to families. The organization says it’s already raised about $350,000 since schools closed and is working with BUSD’s Office of Family Engagement & Equity to distribute a total of $10,000 a week (or a few hundred per family) to help with rent and food.

“The grants are in response to teacher needs, but we saw going into this that it was really about families that are living in the margins — trying to stabilize those families so students have a better chance to learn during this time,” said Erin Rhoades, executive director of the Schools Fund.

The fund has also rallied around 550 volunteers — compared to the usual 150 — to help with Chromebook distribution, tech assistance for families, and to put together activity kits that Rhoades hopes to be able to pass out at a district hub. She said volunteers are practicing social distancing and disinfecting the computers.

“We are way more busy than usual,” she said.

Stephens said BUSD is also prepared to be “a good community partner,” and has offered the use of school facilities for outside meal provision, hospital use or blood drives, if needed.

“We’re ready to do our part,” he told Berkeleyside.

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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,...