Opinion: Berkeley school district should return students to schools as soon as possible

The state has moved Alameda County to the red tier, allowing schools to reopen.BUSD should start with a hybrid approach, combining virtual and in-person instruction, and expand from there.

On Friday, Sept. 18 at 8:59 p.m., Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Brent Stephens emailed his elementary school community: “Despite the very evident limitations of distance learning for Berkeley’s children,” Stephens wrote under the cover of weekend darkness, the district would not be pursuing the waiver process offered by the state for returning TK-6 students to their schools in counties whose COVID risk tier is coded purple (widespread).

Fortunately, BUSD – and schools in similarly situated counties across the state – no longer have to bother with the cumbersome waiver process. They can begin to tackle the critical business of getting over the “very evident limitations of distance learning” by getting California students back to school.

On Tuesday, Sept. 22, the state officially moved Alameda County from purple (widespread) to red (substantial). Schools in red counties have the go-ahead from the state to “re-open for in-person instruction” provided the county remains in the red tier for “at least two weeks” and provided the schools follow the guidelines set forth by the state Department of Public Health. The state’s guidelines comport with a growing body of science to support the importance and safety (if done right) of beginning to return to educational normalcy.

According to the CDC, there have been 94 COVID deaths across the country in the 0-17 age group from February 1 through September 19 (with two of these in California, according to the California Department of Public Health). During that same compass of time in the U.S., 317 0-17-year-olds succumbed to pneumonia and 123 fell to the flu. As an additional point of comparison, 100 children per year die from bicycle accidents.


Now, to be sure, 0-17 year-olds cannot be isolated from older teachers, administrators, and staff in schools. This poses a serious concern, especially for those over 65, where 74% of California’s COVID deaths have been concentrated, with more than half of those in the 80 and above category.  Yet, in countries where schools have re-opened and where proper precautions have been taken, transmission has been kept to a bare minimum. As Science magazine reports: “Countries providing in-person schooling with basic mitigation measures (i.e., distancing, face masks worn in hallways but not classrooms, hand hygiene, ventilation, and staying home with minimal symptoms) typically have close to zero community transmission.”

One reassuring fact is that Berkeley itself has been below the county as a whole on the two critical metrics the state uses to determine a county’s COVID risk level/tier (cases per day per 100,000 and test positivity rate).

As a former New York City high school teacher, where I was a proud, dues-paying member of Albert Shanker’s United Federation of Teachers; as a historian who writes and teaches, in part, about the history of education in the United States; as a taxpayer who has voted for every tax hike and bond measure to support public education; and as a parent of two children who have thrived in Berkeley’s public schools (at least until they went online); I urge BUSD administrators, teachers, and staff to come together and return students to schools as soon as possible after the county clears its requisite two weeks at its new COVID risk tier.

Do it for the sake of equity for BUSD’s most disadvantaged students. Zoom spells a particular kind of doom for them owing to well-documented reasons – from being on the wrong side of the digital divide to lacking the financial wherewithal to keep pace with their more affluent peers whose parents are, understandably, shooting them full of supplemental educational steroids to offset the learning they’re not getting from a distance.

Do it for the sake of all BUSD students, especially the youngest and neediest, for whom remote learning is more remote than learning, as every BUSD teacher, parent, staff, and administrator knows all too well.

Do it for the sake of parents who have been clamoring for it, such as the 75% of BUSD parents who, in response to a district survey in August, asked for some kind of remote/in-person hybrid learning to begin the school year.

Do it for the sake of the countless older children of essential workers (how are teachers not essential?!) whose Zoom gloom learning is rendered even gloomier as they double as tech support for their younger siblings.

Do it for the sake of any curious kids trying to make sense of the priorities of the world around them. Why they might wonder, can their parents get their hair cut inside a salon but they’re still precluded from returning to schools?

Do it for the sake of everyone in the workforce whose livelihoods depend on a fully functioning economy, which will remain hobbled until kids resume school so parents can resume work.

Above all, do it for the sake of the future of public schooling. Nothing will do more to undermine long-term public support for public education than to not provide it in its proper setting when the state has said it’s safe to do so – and in the face of the disproportionate number of private (vs. public) schools that have been leading the charge in that direction.

BUSD, understandably, cannot return to business as usual if/when the county clears its two weeks in the red tier into which it has now been placed. However, there is ample space between the status quo ante and the current all-remote-all-the-time regime. I have every confidence that BUSD administrators, teachers, and staff can – and have been – flexing their pedagogical imaginations to figure out how to fill that space in a way that balances proper education with prudent public health, especially given the many months there have been to prepare for the moment when the state finally green-lights a return to school.

That moment is almost upon us. Please seize it BUSD administrators, teachers, and staff. Finalize your back-to-school-in-stages plans. Iron out whatever contractual differences stand in the way of implementing them. Make the necessary accommodations to protect students, teachers, and staff who might be especially at risk. And then resume the kind of education that can only occur in bricks and mortar settings.

Governor Newsom, please urge BUSD, and the increasing number of similarly situated school districts across the state, to heed your state’s call and guidance. You led us into our shelters in place in March. Now lead us back into school.

Start with the youngest grades and work up from there. Start with some kind of hybrid approach and build out from there. Take all necessary public health precautions. But please for the love of Horace Mann and anyone else who cares about public education, get BUSD students, teachers, and staff back into BUSD schools where they belong.

Every day beyond the one that the state says is permissible to return is too late.

Mark Brilliant is an associate professor in UC Berkeley’s history department, the director of the program in American Studies and the father of two BUSD students.