an empty school campus on the first day of school in distance learning
The exterior of John Muir Elementary School. August 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Update: Oct. 2, 8 p.m. Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said elementary schools are allowed to open on Oct. 13 if they meet county and city criteria in the new health order. The Alameda County Office of Education has also released a phased reopening plan.

Original story: Berkeley schools are eligible for in-person instruction as early as October with Alameda County’s shift into the red, “substantial” tier, but the change likely won’t happen that fast.

The city and Berkeley Unified School District are following the county’s guidance for school reopening, which says that even if the county remains in the state’s red tier for the next 14 days, several local standards will dictate when campuses can reopen.

The primary condition for schools to open, and remain open, will be community transmission rates, Superintendent Brent Stephens said. This is paired with schools’ ability to do “surveillance testing,” which involves testing a certain portion of the school population to monitor spread, create optimal ventilation in classrooms, train staff and a long list of other logistics and procedures.

The Alameda County Office of Education will release a phased reopening plan to lay out a number of details — like which students can return to campus first — for a potential start date of Oct. 6, but campuses will likely only be ready by mid-October at best, according to Stephens. The previous “waiver” system to reopen schools no longer applies in the red tier.

The district is in currently in talks with the city and private contractors to decide its best options for daily health screenings, data systems and more to meet city, county and state standards for reopening.

“We’re out on the open market, we’re getting [city] support to vet those partners, but we’re subject to market forces, and it’s difficult to say when our district and others will that capacity online in a way that it’s described by city health officials,” Stephens said.

“Moving into the red tier has not lifted any of the previously stated expectations for schools to develop these risk reduction practices,” he added.

Matt Meyer, president of the teacher’s union, was more matter-of-fact.

“BUSD will not be prepared to open for in-person instruction in October,” he said. “Just like this summer, when we started reopening without the infrastructure in place to contain community spread, cases started to spike.”

He said teachers want to return to in-person instruction as soon as it’s safe to do so, but teachers and district employees have already tested positive for COVID-19, and reopening campuses will inevitably increase community transmission and bring the virus into classrooms.

He called on the city and county to support schools in developing free, widespread testing with quick turnarounds to minimize spread.

In a community message on Wednesday, Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said in-person instruction at schools is a priority for the city in the next phase of reopening. Berkeley has been working with the district on childcare and navigating local guidelines, which layer on top of guidance from the county and state.

“This is a really critical entity to have. We want kids to come to school, but its needs to be safe for everyone,” Hernandez told Berkeleyside.

The district has released, updated and completely pivoted on a number of reopening plans over the last several months, partly due to rapidly changing science and government guidance. The switch to distance learning has not been painless, and the pandemic, paired with wildfires and scheduled power outages, has created intractable conditions for some families, and widespread childcare concerns for many.

The district’s previous plans have included a “cohorted support” model, which could introduce students with disabilities, English language learners, preschool and other students to campuses first. This could end up being the first step if schools do reopen in October, but specifics have not been decided yet.

The county and district’s plan will be finalized in the next few weeks as officials keep an eye on cases and spread. San Francisco, which has been in the red tier for longer than Alameda County, has a phasing plan that has proved difficult to implement for many campuses.

A regional focus is critical to Berkeley educators and city officials, who acknowledge that while Berkeley cases have remained relatively low, nearby Contra Costa and Sonoma counties still have “widespread” risk of COVID-19, and rates differ highly even within Alameda County. Many teachers and school employees commute to the district from nearby regions, and travel between cities is common for families.

“It’s simply not possible to think about transmission rates as a city phenomenon, it really is a localized, regional phenomenon, and that includes counties outside of Alameda County,” Stephens said.

The district and the city’s planning will remain measured and cautious over the next several weeks.

“It is significant process the Alameda County has shifted tiers and we’re heartened to see that the permissions may be opening up,” he said. “At the same time, our commitment to balancing employee and student health with the educational needs of our students remains intact.”

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...