Could this Berkeley High hallway crush become a single-file line? It will have to if schools reopen in the fall. Photo: Emilie Raguso

Anyone who’s been to Berkeley High knows a defining feature of the school is its suffocatingly crowded hallways, where thousands of students shove past each other, sprint to class or linger behind for too long, shout over their friends’ heads, cluster around fights and perform elaborate dance routines to ask someone to prom.

“Single-file one way, up the sides,” is how BUSD Facility Director John Calise described the high-school hallways of the future.

Orderly passing periods may sound implausible, acknowledged BUSD staff during a virtual town hall Wednesday evening, but they’re among the “risk reduction practices” that will likely be necessary should students be permitted, in some form or another, back on campus in August.

“We do believe school will not be back to normal in the fall,” Superintendent Brent Stephens told a few hundred digital attendees at the meeting. “It’s likely to be a very bumpy year.”

There is no explicit guidance from the state or federal government on how schools should reopen, he said, but California officials have told districts they’ll need to plan for social distancing.

“This requirement poses a real challenge for schools,” Stephens wrote in a new “planning overview” document for fall reopening.

That initial outline suggests the Berkeley school system could be completely restructured next year, with staff and students alike performing a massive logistical feat in order to simply go to class.

BUSD will likely divide students into fixed cohorts, or “bubble groups,” with each only coming to school on certain days or for partial days. Maintenance workers would clean classrooms in between each session, possibly using a speedy electrostatic method.

“We imagine that every time a new group enters into a space, that space should be thoroughly disinfected,” Stephens said.

Staff have analyzed the capacity of each BUSD facility to determine how many people could fit inside while staying 6 feet apart. Classes could safely hold up to 12 students, according to BUSD, meaning elementary classes would be cut in half and grades 6-12 would be reduced to an even smaller fraction. Cafeteria tables could sit five students instead of 16. School buses could carry 174 passengers instead of 852 on one morning run, perhaps one of the greatest practical challenges and a blow to a district famous for its busing program.

Students ages 13 and up may need to wear face coverings, and shared equipment like books, basketballs and pianos could get locked away.

The ESY kitchen classroom at King Middle School.
Empty classrooms, like the Edible Schoolyard at King Middle School, could get filled in the fall — up to a point. Photo: Melati Citrawireja

At the town hall, which included an interactive portion for participants, one attendee commented on how difficult it will be for children to maintain social distance.

Stephens agreed, saying the task would be most challenging for the youngest students but damaging for high schoolers as well, “many of whom love a good hug in between classes.”

The superintendent said he’s worried about the high-pressure environment the new rules could foster, encouraging students to tattle on each other or breeding lasting “hang-ups” around touch and interaction.

One participant asked whether reopening such a limited, bare-bones version of school is even worth it, or whether distance learning should continue until campuses are fully safe to reenter. Staff didn’t address that question, only handling the comments that got high ratings from other viewers. But since schools closed, plenty of parents have been pushing for a quick return to anything resembling normalcy. Many work full-time from home or need to leave the house for essential jobs, and are struggling to make sure their children get an education and stay safe while the adults are busy.

School, “we’re hearing loud and clear,” said Stephens, that school “represents an important form of child care.”

BUSD is looking into providing child care either after school or during the workday while only some cohorts get to go to class.

Staff floated the Berkeley Adult School as a potential site for new classrooms or child care. People who’ve been pushing for years to convert the property into a K-12 site will applaud that suggestion, but for the many adults who rely on the school to learn English or pursue their GED, a shift to online courses could be tough.

One commenter received a high rating from other participants when they noted that not all BUSD students come from homes they can safely leave to attend school. They might live with immunocompromised or older family members. That participant suggested a survey of families to figure out the most appropriate course, as it will differ depending on the child. BUSD has already surveyed staff and students and will convene advisory committees of community members, educators and principals, to plot out the first months back at school. May has been packed with public meetings on distance learning and fall 2020 too.

There are risks to keeping kids home as well. Early data has indicated that school closures have exacerbated disparities in access to, and participation in, online courses.

A word cloud from a previous BUSD town hall — where participants were asked to share comments on distance learning and fall 2020 — suggests there’s widespread concern about isolation during school closures. Image: BUSD
— where participants were asked to share comments on distance learning and fall 2020 — suggests there’s widespread concern about isolation during school closures. Image: BUSD

Rough data reported by Berkeley teachers during the third week of distance learning showed that already-vulnerable student groups were not participating in distance learning at high levels. While somewhere close to 20% of all students were not participating, nearly a third of all special-education and black students were missing out. A full 40% of homeless students were marked as not participating, as were 29% of students from low-income families.

For children at critical development stages, missing months of school could be especially harmful.

Some of the disparities may be attributed to the “digital divide” that has been thrown into relief during the pandemic. While BUSD has distributed 2,500 Chromebooks to students and staff, families were still collecting the computers and WiFi hotspots well into the distance learning roll-out. At the town hall, a teacher commented that educators need better home “set-ups,” and another commenter pitched an on-call tech-support crew for flummoxed parents.

One commenter said they’re all for some kind of return to campus, even if paired with ongoing remote learning, if only to restore consistent, live interaction with teachers and peers.

In the meantime, one person proposed, give kids more hands-on home assignments: cooking, nature education, construction.

With all the uncertainty around the fall semester, Stephens has promised one thing: it will begin, per usual, in late August.

“Gavin Newsom created quite a stir in California when he mused from the podium that schools might be able to open in July,” the superintendent said.

Summer school will be expanded this year, with extra sessions and broader eligibility. But with BUSD preparing to carve chunks out of its budget and grappling with how students can safely use school bathrooms, an August opening will already be a serious undertaking.

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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,...