John Muir Elementary School during the pandemic, and distance learning. The playground is wrapped in caution tape, and an old banner to the right says "Welcome! Go Grizzlies!"
An empty entrance to John Muir Elementary School in April. Photo: Pete Rosos

All Berkeley Unified School District students will likely start the fall 2020 semester with distance learning only, after the district pivoted on previous plans for hybrid education. The move was prompted by worsening COVID-19 conditions locally, and comes as staff and faculty scramble to make a slew of preparations in four short weeks.

Superintendent Brent Stephens told Berkeleyside he will recommend the change — which will apply to all grade levels, and is accompanied by a new, more robust distance-learning plan —at this week’s board meeting on July 15. The board will vote on the change at the following meeting, on July 29.

In a letter sent to the BUSD community tonight, Stephens said: “I still see that a return to on-campus learning reopening is possible; I just don’t see that doing so on August 17th is feasible.” He called the decision to shift plans “heartbreaking,” and said schools would no longer immediately return to limited in-person education plans even if the county moved forward with reopening, instead focusing on strong, well-developed distance learning programs.

Stephens told Berkeleyside that the decision has been “emotionally wrenching” for everyone planning the next academic year, and acknowledged that parents may have intense feelings about the news. BUSD had been simultaneously planning for hybrid learning and distance learning throughout the summer, but it has now decided to zero in on strengthening remote options.

“It’s a very difficult bit of news to be delivering to the Berkeley community.” — Superintendent Brent Stephens

“It really is, and has been — throughout the course of our summer of work — our commitment to bring students back on campus,” he said. “It’s a very difficult bit of news to be delivering to the Berkeley community, that we don’t feel it’s feasible.”

Previous district plans were conditional on the relaxing of shelter-in-place orders countywide, but, in the past several days, Alameda County has been placed on a state watch list to monitor growing infection rates, increases in hospitalizations and other criteria. Today Gov. Newsom ordered the re-closing statewide of businesses that had gradually been allowed to reopen. And, this week, the state’s two largest school districts, in Los Angeles, San Diego, also announced that they would not be returning to campus in the fall.

These developments influenced the district’s decision, said Stephens, as well as the daunting task of completely revamping schools for in-person learning by Aug. 17, the start of the school year. Among other complicated logistics, this would have involved setting up separate entrances for student and staff, arranging thousands of schedules, procuring cleaning supplies, and creating specialized COVID-19 education trainings for community members. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers, a teacher’s union, also passed two resolutions last week that called for distance learning in the fall. That move also guided the district’s plans, Stephens said.

A rolling opening for in-person activities

BUSD is describing the plan as a “rolling opening,” and while there are no specific dates or criteria set for the introduction of campus activities, distance learning could eventually make way for hybrid learning. “Key programs” would be prioritized, which include those for younger children, students with Individualized Education Plans and the three Early Childhood Education programs at Franklin Preschool, Hopkins and King preschools.

A survey conducted by the district in June found that about 38% of of families and 43% of staff said they were “probably not comfortable” or “definitely not comfortable” returning to in-person instruction in the fall, but many community members — especially those with young children, also rely on schools as a form of child care.

The district is focusing on distance learning for the fall, but it’s aiming to transform the rudimentary model that administrators, teachers and students quickly pulled together in the first months of the pandemic.

Improvements will include daily video instruction, structured schedules, “engaging remote learning content,” attendance checks and consistent communication, according to the district’s letter. The district will also broaden its plans to share Chromebooks and technology resources through the Ed-Hub, continue meal service and other supportive programs.

When time is right, younger students will return to school first

The school has set separate benchmarks to check in with schools as it works toward in-person education, and it’s likely that younger students will return to school first. Elementary and middle schools will remain in distance learning for the first eight weeks of school, and the district will provide an update around mid-September.

High school students will remain in distance learning until winter break. As described in previous plans, Berkeley High and Berkeley Technical Academy may be used supplementally for clubs, athletics and technical training before students fully return to in-person learning.

The district has held community town halls, and specific events for African American and Spanish-speaking families, since schools first shut down in March. It is planning to host additional meetings in August once school plans for next year are finalized. It’s also asking families to continue submitting the Instructional Program Choice form it shared last week to gauge preferences for its general planning.

“When we are able to anticipate reopening school campuses more fully, we commit to re-surveying families and providing further program details before confirming program choices for students,” the letter says.

Some school districts around the country have said they’re reopening with on-campus learning, in line with guidance from President Donald Trump. Stephens said the next month will show which districts are able to take that step, but it’s certainly not one BUSD can approach with confidence.

“It may well be that in other communities, there’s a realistic path to reopening. I suspect, over the next four weeks, as those districts as well wrestle with the details, that they will I think be forced to confront some more realities about how difficult this is going to be,” he said.

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...