Berkeley schools like Washington Elementary won’t reopen until the fall at the earliest. Photo: Pete Rosos
Berkeley schools like Washington Elementary won’t reopen until the fall at the earliest. Photo: Pete Rosos

The Berkeley School Board voted unanimously Wednesday to keep all schools closed through the end of the academic year.

The decision, which was all but inevitable, officially extends school closures beyond the end-date of the Bay Area’s current shelter-in-place order, May 3. That order is expected to be extended as well.

The board said it would reconsider its decision in the unlikely case that local health officers say it’s safe to reopen schools this spring.

“We don’t think that will happen, based on all of the currently available facts,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens at Wednesday evening’s virtual board meeting. He said recommendations from county superintendents and health officers sent a “clear signal” that it was wise to continue remote learning through June 12, the last day of school.

The Berkeley school closures were initially only expected to last a few weeks. Wednesday’s vote means all Berkeley Unified students, from preschoolers to adult learners, will miss out on three months of in-person instruction. Stephens also shared a sobering prediction from the San Diego County Office of Education that California districts might have to fundamentally restructure public education even if schools reopen in the fall.

BUSD is considering many contingency plans, said Stephens, even including keeping schools at 20-50% capacity, with each student only coming into class one or two days a week and learning from home the rest of the time. National health experts have advised that this sort of easing-in method of returning to life after the coronavirus pandemic will be warranted. For the schools community it could present massive logistical challenges, however, if parents return to work or teachers themselves have children at home.

In the meantime, BUSD is solidifying plans for an expanded but virtual summer learning program. On Wednesday the board approved funding to broaden eligibility for that program to more under-served students.

Stephens said staff is also working to strengthen the current distance learning system, pushing Zoom to implement safety measures so the platform can be used for live classes again. Board member Julie Sinai said the district should look into providing office space for teachers who can’t easily provide virtual lessons from their homes.

Board member Beatriz Leyva-Cutler had a message for parents Wednesday: “Please don’t stress.”

She told them teachers and staff will get children back on track academically in the fall, and encouraged them to just work on keeping their kids calm and comforted, so they don’t return to campuses too traumatized to learn.

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,...