Bustling elementary school classrooms are a thing of the past for now. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

What should school look like next year?

That was one remarkable question at the center of a virtual Berkeley Unified town hall Wednesday night.

As BUSD faces major decisions about the fall semester and the end of this school year, district leaders enlisted an outside company to solicit live community feedback and concerns online as administrators shared their plans so far.

The coronavirus pandemic has thrown some of the most fundamental aspects of Berkeley’s public education system into question. While Berkeley has relatively small class sizes, thanks to a longstanding parcel tax, even those classrooms could be too crowded for safe learning in the fall.

If social distancing measures are still in place when school starts back up, the district has only two options for continuing to provide children with an education, said Superintendent Brent Stephens at the well-attended town hall.

“One is to play with time,” Stephens told viewers, suggesting small groups of students might take turns coming to school on different days, or BUSD could theoretically lengthen the school day or year. “The other is, of course, to find more space,” converting district facilities into new makeshift classrooms for smaller cohorts, he said.

This week Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that California schools could open earlier next year, in August or July. That declaration reportedly came as a surprise to both state education leaders and to Stephens, who said an extended year would depend on significant new funds from the state and agreements with local unions.

As is, BUSD and other districts are bracing for a drop in state funding during the likely upcoming recession.  Stephens said Wednesday that he’s reviving budget committees that “thought their work was done” after they came up with more than $1 million in cuts for next year. Instead, Stephens said the board should have $2 million in additional budget reductions “in its pocket” next year should that “very unsavory task” become necessary.

“At the very moment we have increased needs to serve our students, we’re also facing the prospect of decreased resources,” the superintendent said.

At the interactive town hall facilitated by Thoughtexchange, community members shared a wide range of concerns and suggestions. Image: Zoom

“As both a parent of an incoming kindergartner and a teacher, the thought of one day a week in school for each student is so upsetting,” wrote one viewer during the interactive feedback portion of the meeting. “School is social, it is dynamic, it happens with others.” That comment received an average 3.9-star rating from 29 other participants on a five-star rating scale.

Another commenter said it seemed highly unlikely that any number of elementary school students would be able to successfully social-distance together.

Stephens said he shared the parents’ concerns, and said teenagers especially, who might mainly go to school in order to see their friends, can suffer from social isolation.

Despite all the talk about fall semester, many parents are clearly most concerned about the immediate future, and have pushed the district to better restore some of the learning and routine that’s been lost during the messy transition to remote schooling.

Many of the comments that received the highest ratings dealt with the instruction that students are or aren’t receiving. Since the distance learning plan was implemented, parents have raised concerns about the inconsistency in instruction among teachers, classes and campuses, and about the significant decrease in live lessons.

Stephens offered a strong defense of the district’s more open-ended start to distance learning, which required all teachers to provide live “office hours” for three hours a week, but left it up to the educators to decide what to do during that period. (However students are all supposed to receive more standardized weekly assignments as well.) Stephens said the initial flexibility has allowed for valuable experimentation, and now the district will work on tweaking the system over the next couple weeks based on the early experiences and the results of ongoing student and parent surveys.

BUSD has also announced the long-desired return of Zoom, starting Monday. The district has been working with the company to improve safety features, after prohibiting teachers from using it following a “Zoombombing” incident.

Plans for Berkeley High graduation have also solidified: A virtual ceremony will be live-streamed, including performances, speeches and some version of the traditional walk across the stage for students. Fifth and eighth grade classes will also have live graduation events, BUSD said.

The massive shift to the modern online learning world has ironically forced a return to old-fashioned forms of instruction, said Stephens at the town hall.

A teacher lecturing groups of anonymous students is “ancient pedagogy,” he said — nothing like the self-guided, interactive, discussion- and project-based approaches favored now.

But the superintendent responded enthusiastically to a comment about the unusual opportunity the district has to “reinvent education” as well. Stephens said he’d like to embrace newer ideas in the education world like “performance-based assessment” and “standards-based grading,” replacing some Zoom lectures with more hands-on activities away from the computer and defining proficiency not by attendance or tests but a range of assessments. He didn’t offer more details about what that could look like in Berkeley though.

The interactive component of the town hall, led by the company Thoughtexchange, revealed an extraordinary participation level. Viewers submitted hundreds of comments and questions, and starred so many that it created a constellation of parental anxiety and ideas on the screen.

That level of engagement could be due in part to the relative accessibility of a virtual meeting (no trekking out to a live meeting during dinnertime), or to the success of the interactive program. But it undoubtedly demonstrates the dominant feelings of uncertainty, concern and curiosity among Berkeley families and district staff as a new era of education takes shape.

The next BUSD town hall is May 13, and School Board meetings will be held May 6 and 20.

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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,...