A happy young boy hold his hands together under his face. A computer screen displays a woman's face
A Malcolm X student has a video conference with a teacher. All live classes started back up Monday using Google Meet rather than Zoom. Photo: BUSD

Berkeley Unified has found a way to avoid “Zoombombers” invading online classes: stop using Zoom.

Superintendent Brent Stephens announced Friday that all teachers would switch to Google Meet for video lessons, starting Monday.

The decision came three days after the district’s controversial suspension of live classes. After a naked Zoombomber was inadvertently let into a Berkeley High photography class Tuesday, Stephens halted the use of the video conferencing service and similar platforms.

While district leaders said they needed a few days to ensure student safety during video classes, a chorus of frustrated parents said the Zoom lessons had provided students with desperately needed social interaction and structure.

BUSD’s existing use of Google products allows user “authentication,” confirming students’ identities, Stephens said in a message to families. The district has been pushing Zoom to enable similar user authentication, he said.

But the superintendent warned parents that the new platform is not risk-free. The district had toyed with requiring parent permission slips for live classes — potentially to avoid the legal ramifications of accidentally exposing kids to nudity or other inappropriate behavior.

“All of these online technologies come with risks for our students and educators,” Stephens wrote. “For the foreseeable future, parents and caregivers are cautioned that the use of live conferencing technology comes with risk, and that not all of this risk can be controlled by the district and teachers.”

The Zoombombing incident particularly disturbed administrators because the teacher had followed BUSD’s safety protocols: using a district account, requiring a password and enabling a “waiting room.” According to the district, the teacher saw a name he recognized in the waiting room and let that person in. The administration’s best guess is that the log-in information was shared with someone outside of the class.

While the district has described the Zoombomber as an adult man, a student said it looked to her and her friends to be a teenager. He appeared to be mimicking a popular meme, she said.

“I do feel that it lessens the severity of the occurrence,” Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan said in an email to Berkeleyside.

The return of video conferencing means full implementation, once again, of the district’s “distance learning” plan. The plan had only been put into effect Monday, when students returned from spring break. That plan requires teachers to hold video “office hours,” but also includes non-live components like worksheets and recorded lessons. Groups of teachers have formed to create those weekly lesson plans for each grade or course, and individual teachers are able to customize the assignments for their specific classes.

All second-semester grades will be recorded as “pass” or “no pass,” in lieu of the typical letter grade system, Stephens announced last week. California’s public universities have all agreed to accept those marks on transcripts.

“Teachers may continue to give exams and other assessments, but are advised to account for the inequitable learning conditions that the COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated,” Stephens wrote. “We are experiencing a profound crisis as a community; every day I hear heart-wrenching stories from our students and families about job loss, full-time child care obligations for older students, families with essential workers and frontline workers, and families with high-risk loved ones. I’m also hearing heartening stories of resilience, compassion, creativity, and caring that assure me that we will come through this together.”

With the switch to Google Meet, the district is also advising teachers to keep online class sizes small.

Zoom will remain in use for meeting that only involve adults.

Wednesday’s School Board meeting — which will include updates on BUSD’s COVID-19 response as well as budget decisions — is also set to be held on Zoom.

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,...