Berkeley School Board appears on Zoom
The BUSD board during its last planned (virtual) summer meeting on July 29, 2020. Image: Zoom

Berkeley Unified School District has unveiled new daily schedules for distance learning across all grade levels in preparation for the start of the school year in less than a month.

During Wednesday’s board meeting, the last one scheduled for this summer, Stephens zipped through the presentation describing the new model, presenting a big-picture look at next year across all grade levels. The district shared the plan with parents on Friday, and has several scheduled town hall meetings in the coming weeks. The plans will be modified as the district receives more feedback and assesses local health conditions, but it is in step with UC Berkeley and school districts across the country in shifting to online learning to curb the spread of coronavirus.

The new plan lays out changes from the quick-response, “crisis learning” of spring when the pandemic first closed down schools. This includes updates introduced in past weeks, like required attendance, the reintroduction of grading and report cards, and an increase in live, video instruction. Special education, Academic Intervention and English Language Development will be integrated into all schedules, a major change from previous iterations.

Amid worsening COVID-19 conditions locally, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens announced on July 13 that he would be recommending a shift to distance learning for the fall instead of the originally planned hybrid learning model. The board unanimously voted to move forward with his suggestion for school starts on August 17.

Elementary schools will offer 2 weeks of teacher meetings

The current transitional kindergarten and elementary schedule begins at 9 a.m. and includes live, whole-class instruction five days a week, as well as small group instruction, independent study and “choice time,” which could include enrichment classes like physical activity, art, and other lessons based on the school. Stephens on Wednesday also emphasized the district’s support of the Two-Way Immersion at Sylvia Mendez Elementary School and dismissed false rumors that it’s threatened.

One new component in the distance learning plan is family meetings for elementary school students and their teachers during the first two weeks of the school year. These meetings might be in-person or online, and the district intends to create a library of video resources and guides to ease families into the school year. Campuses will remain open to check out materials and Chromebooks through the Ed Hub.

Parents of younger students have complained of difficulties keeping them engaged on Zoom and virtual classes, and said during the board meeting that daily live instruction would be incompatible with kids’ attention spans.

High school students will take 3 classes every term

Middle and high schools will begin with zero period at 8 a.m., and Berkeley High students will take three classes each over two 4- to 6-week terms. This is intended to make the school year more manageable for older students.

Wednesdays will involve fluid, “small group support,” where teachers could select specific students to meet with them online. Otherwise, it will be an independent study day. The California Interscholastic Federation hasn’t yet approved athletics for next year, but training and practices are continuing in the meantime.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers and others have asked for staggered start times to ease burdened internet connections and resource inequalities for students within the same household and allow better engagement for parents. The district is considering these changes and may push the middle school start time to 10 a.m. and the high school start time to 11 a.m. Currently, students with an Individualized Education Program will have a slightly delayed start because of new, personalized “contingency learning plans” for each student. The first two weeks of school will be used to create these plans.

BUSD School programs prioritized over “family pods”

During the meeting, Stephens acknowledged that some caregivers have been interested in forming “family pods” to share learning resources and facilitate in-person interaction for students, but said that BUSD will be focusing resources on improving its educational offerings and upcoming programs like “Ed Camp.” Board President Judy Appel also raised equity concerns over who would be able to participate in such family pods and said it requires a certain amount of privilege to be able to set aside time, money and resources to teach children during the day.

One new parent in the district, Rachel DiVerdi, said during public comment that “We literally don’t know a single soul,” and it would be difficult for her to find an immediate family pod community. Stephens said the pods may be necessary for some, and that BUSD may collaborate with caregivers to make it work, but it won’t make extra allowances for these structures, like altering school schedules to fit the pods.

Each school will make its own master schedule and there’s still a host of issues to be fine-tuned as BUSD tries to follow through with its equity goals during an unprecedented fall start. BUSD is also continuing to work with local organizations and the city to sort out childcare and extended day learning options.

District leaders emphasized that the plan will continue to change until it meets the needs of its community, as well as findings from about 80 educators who are currently planning out next year’s curriculum. There’s no board meeting planned for next week currently, but this may change if the district finds the need to reconvene.

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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...