BUSD prepares for ‘distance learning’ in fall, creating child care concerns for some families

The Berkeley School Board on Wednesday approved a general planning framework as the district gets ready for 2020-21.

If Berkeley public schools, like Washington Elementary, above, reopen in the fall, the campuses will be used for “supplemental” purposes, the School Board said Wednesday. Photo: Pete Rosos

Berkeley Unified leaders confirmed Wednesday that they expect to continue “distance learning” in the 2020-21 school year, reserving school campuses — if they’re permitted to reopen — for “supplemental” uses.

The School Board did not officially vote on the educational structure at its Wednesday meeting, but the officials approved a set of “planning assumptions” — that COVID-19 will continue to be present in Berkeley, that distance learning will be the core of the academic program, and that configuring school sites for limited use will be a secondary priority.

That’s the framework district administrators will use as staff continues to plot out the first months of the coming school year. Things could change and schools could ultimately fully reopen, but the “assumptions” constitute the district’s best guess about how schools will be run, based on national and regional health guidance, staff said.

“This will permit schools to plan towards a certain scenario,” said Superintendent Brent Stephens at Wednesday’s meeting. “It’s one we think is probable, but can be adjusted.”

While the written list of approved assumptions refers to “next year” and “2020-2021,” BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott clarified Thursday that staff is only using this framework to plan for the fall semester at this point. The district has convened multiple advisory committees to weigh in too, and staff will eventually present the board with an official fall reopening plan for approval.

BUSD first launched its distance learning program in early April, and it’s received mixed reviews. Under the plan, students in each grade level or course receive weekly assignments to complete at home, and all teachers are required to hold three “office hours” each week where they’re available to video-chat with students.

Parents and students have said that implementation has been inconsistent among school sites and individual teachers. This is partially by design, as BUSD wanted to leave room for experimentation to figure out which academic approaches work best under the unprecedented circumstances, and because both staff and students have varying levels of access to technology, the district has said.

Some parents say they’ll struggle with more “distance learning”

Many parents have reacted strongly to the idea that distance learning will continue for the foreseeable future.

Tabitha O’Melay has five children, including three in BUSD schools — and she’s in school full-time herself. She said another year of distance learning simply won’t work for her family unless she quits her software engineering program.

“But I have to finish my school program to support my family,” she told Berkeleyside. Ironically O’Melay used to homeschool her kids, but she put them in BUSD so she could get her degree and then a job. Everything was on track until the pandemic.

“I’m concerned about our future as a family, living in Berkeley,” she said.

“There are subjects that simply can’t be taught as deeply or richly as if we were in classrooms,” like this 2016 Berkeley Technology Academy cooking class, said Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer (not pictured). Photo: Emilie Raguso

This spring, trying to educate her three BUSD students, two of whom have special needs, has been impossible while attending her own full day of classes, O’Melay said. She has a kindergartener at Malcolm X who loved school but hates Zoom sessions. She has a fifth-grader at John Muir who needs intensive special education and can’t navigate the software program his class uses. He already resisted going to school in the past, and O’Melay used to have to walk him to the bus stop and make sure he got on the bus.

Her seventh-grader at Willard, who also has special needs, is “overwhelmed. He has six different teachers for the first time, and every single one has chosen a different format,” O’Melay said. “He tried to do distance learning at first, then shut down. And I can’t make him.”

O’Melay said that for families like hers, school is a critical form of child care.

“We’ve built an entire society around the idea that kids are all at school,” she said. But O’Melay said she wants to protect her family’s health and follow the law too, so she’s at a loss for what districts like Berkeley should be doing instead of distance learning.

District leaders have previously indicated that BUSD might need to offer child care itself in the fall, for kids who don’t have access to campuses. (Berkeley’s current shelter-in-place order only permits child care facilities to serve kids of essential workers, but parents can hire babysitters too.) If schools reopen at all, BUSD expects to send children to classrooms in “bubble groups” of 12 on only certain days of the week. Students would only interact with other children in their bubble group, which would stay intact for a period of three weeks. The school-based activities would probably be limited to “community building” and the like, Stephens said Wednesday.

Board member Julie Sinai also encouraged district staff to develop concrete protocols for re-closing a school on an emergency basis if COVID-19 starts spreading through a student body or there are vulnerable people who could be exposed.

Sinai said BUSD will also need to make deliberate efforts to reach families that slip through the cracks. The Berkeley Public Schools Fund has raised money to put 10 homeless families up in hotels, said Sinai, but she worries those children are likely missing out on distance learning lessons. Initial data from this spring have shown concerning participation rates among some groups, including homeless and African American students. The district believes around 20% of students in general are not participating in distance learning.

Stephens said he hopes families will not leave BUSD altogether next year, but that some will likely put their kids in the already-established independent studies program or enter into homeschooling agreements with the district.

Teachers say they’ll need support, flexibility in fall

On Wednesday, the School Board also voted to reserve the last week of school, June 8-12, for student make-up work and teacher preparation. Board members said teachers should still be available to students who reach out.

Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer said teachers need that week to learn from one another’s experiences being thrown into distance learning without any training.

Meyer cautioned officials that “we’ll actually need to negotiate” several aspects of the plan for the fall. “We can’t act like our usual expectations apply when nothing is usual,” he said, referring to grades and assessments, academic standards, teaching supplies and more.

“Sadly we have to acknowledge that there are subjects that simply can’t be taught as deeply or richly as if we were in classrooms,” Meyer said. “Kindergarten teachers tell me that they literally hold a child’s hand to help them form letters. This is going to be very tough to do through a screen.”

Estella Hemp, the student board member, has repeatedly told her colleagues that expectations need to be clearer for students too. Berkeley High seniors like her still don’t know what they need to do in order to graduate in two weeks, she said, and many have checked out entirely because they haven’t been explicitly told they’re still on the hook for class credits, according to her. A senior survey found that motivation to participate in distance learning is extraordinarily low — though the last semester of high school is a traditionally lax one even when there isn’t a pandemic.

Financial strife will compound the challenges of continuing distance learning in the fall. Districts like BUSD are gearing up for extreme budget reductions, as state funding for public education is set to plummet.

“One of the most daunting aspects is we are dealing with a very large volume of decisions,” Stephens said Wednesday. He told board members that the “planning assumptions” will at least help staffers narrow their focus a bit.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously a reporter for Berkeleyside.