BUSD board members and Parents of Children of African Descent host a town hall to discuss black students’ needs during COVID-19 and distance learning.

Berkeley Unified School District leaders said Tuesday that they will protect and prioritize initiatives supporting black students, despite massive budget cuts and structural upheavals projected for the next academic year due to COVID-19.

The district is in its third month of distance learning after schools closed in conjunction with shelter-in-place orders in mid-March. The dramatic switch to at-home learning has exacerbated existing inequities in BUSD, but the district has introduced several programs to improve educational access, including distributing 2,500 Chromebooks and Wi-Fi hotspots to students.

BUSD officials turned to issues specifically affecting black students and their families in a virtual town hall co-hosted by Parents of Children of African Descent on Tuesday evening, hearing from more than 100 community members. The participants asked for culturally relevant curriculums for distance learning and summer school, one-on-one time with teachers to improve trust and communication, hiring and retention of black teachers, and engagement of both students and their family members.

The district has been roughly tracking engagement levels across its classrooms since distance learning began. Initial reports from teachers show that a third of black students are not participating in classes. Overall, about 20% of all BUSD students are not participating in distance learning.

“That’s not to say that all students in the group aren’t participating, but we’re seeing differences,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens, describing the district’s current strategy as relying heavily on school administrators and teachers to maintain relationships with students, and build trust with students and their families.

Though budget cuts have been a moving target, Stephens said the district is currently looking at a “monumental” loss of over $7 million in funding in the coming year. Equity-oriented programs, like the Umoja class at Longfellow Middle School, part of the African American Success Project, are not currently on the chopping block.

“We don’t think there will be cuts to any of the current programming that’s designed to support African American students specifically,” he said. “If it’s possible, I do hope to expand some of that programming, even in the face of these cuts…it’s a little too early to say whether the numbers will work out.”

The district is partnering with local organizations for reduced-tuition and subsidized summer programming for black students, including African American Regional Educational Alliances, which is creating a customized STEM Steps for Success program for Berkeley schools. Ann Marie Callegari, the supervisor of BUSD’s Office of Family Engagement & Equity, said the number of students who will be able to participate hasn’t yet been finalized.

A survey from 1,300 members of the BUSD community shows reduced screen time as a major request during distance learning due to COVID-19.

Customized summer programming was among the top suggestions from community members during the meeting, which used a “Thought Exchange” program to solicit online feedback from attendees. They also asked for dedicated tech support for students and families, the possibility of training parents of black students to be classroom assistants, and formal anti-bias training for teachers and staff. The forum will remain open for the next several days, and the district hopes to gain more perspective before a second town hall for black students scheduled on June 16 at 6:30 p.m.

Leslie Bowling-Dyer, a PCAD coordinating council member who has been working with BUSD’s Office of Family Engagement & Equity and African American Success Project to create a framework for black student success, stressed the importance of community participation in creating a plan for the future. She said the board’s decisions in the next few months will determine students’ trajectories for the rest of their lives.

“We’re facing a lot of unknowns, and unfortunately, we all are inheriting a history in which even with the best of intentions, when black voices aren’t at the table, when we aren’t in the room, our perspectives get lost,” she said. “Lived experience of what it means to be black is not something that can be written down and exported, we need to show up.”

BUSD will begin the 2020-21 school year in August, using distance learning as the core of its educational programming and campuses as a possible supplement. Summer programming will be entirely digital, except for the children of essential workers, as decided by public health officials regionwide. The city hasn’t yet announced its plans for these in-person camps.

The district’s next step is to take what teachers have learned from distance learning methods, such as Google Classroom and Zoom video chat sessions, and optimize this technology for the district’s educational goals. This includes long-standing projects, such as addressing the disproportionate number of black students who are identified for special education programs.

Aside from its existing budget, BUSD will also lean on Measure E, a $10 million parcel tax approved by voters in March, which could contribute to bolstered recruitment of teachers from historically black colleges and universities, Stephens said.

“What we have to do is not only redesign the district for next year, but resurrect and then protect those very plans that we had been working on up to the point of the school closures,” he said. “Do know that just because we’re in the middle of an emergency, that our priorities have not changed.

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Supriya Yelimeli is a housing and homelessness reporter for Berkeleyside and joined the staff in May 2020 after contributing reporting since 2018 as a freelance writer. Yelimeli grew up in Fremont and...