A BUSD student working remotely from home, Oct. 20, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Sinead O’Sullivan typically spends the last week of August preparing her kids for the first day of school. This year, she spent it packing up her Berkeley home and driving 750 miles to Park City, Utah, where schools are open, in an attempt to secure in-person education for her kids.

“It was an incredibly quick decision made within the span of two weeks. I thought, “Am I crazy to do this?” O’Sullivan said. “Eight weeks on, I have no regrets.”

A single mom with two kids, O’Sullivan saw enough of online school in the spring to know it was not working for her family. “People say things like ‘we’re all in this together,’ but it’s so different when you have a special needs child or are a single parent.”

O’Sullivan is one of many Berkeley parents who are not enrolled in Berkeley public schools this year. Enrollment is down 5%, which means that the district is short 445 students compared to the previous year — 9,399 this October compared to 9,844 the same time last year. A third of that number is children who are not enrolled in kindergarten or transitional kindergarten, leading to a 17% drop in those grades, compared to last year’s projected enrollment. In the past few years, enrollment at Berkeley Unified has stayed constant. This year’s decline seems in line with enrollment trends in public schools across the country during the pandemic.

Change in enrollment at BUSD schools from 2019 to 2020

Enrollment at Berkeley Unified fell about 5% between October 2019 and fall 2020. The decline was more pronounced at public elementary and middle schools, while high school enrollment has remained relatively stable. *Enrollment at Berkeley Technical Academy, a continuation high school that offers credit recovery, declined by 37%. Students typically elect to transfer to B-Tech throughout the school year, and fewer students may be choosing to transfer so far this year. Hover over the school circles for details.

As for the rest of the families, many are fed up with distance learning and are finding ways to do something different for their children. Some, like O’Sullivan, have moved away to other states where public schools are open. Others have chosen to homeschool their children or enroll them in outdoor education programs. Some have chosen private schools, even if that meant more virtual learning.

“We’ve seen an exodus from the area school districts,” said Yalda Modabber, executive director at Golestan School, a private pre-K-3 school in El Cerrito that has been providing outdoor, in-person instruction since June, in tents and yurts erected on the campus. The tiny school gained about a dozen new students from local districts this year.

It appears that a relatively small number of students have chosen private schools. Enrollment at private schools across California has remained steady this year, according to Deborah Dowling, Executive Director of the California Association for Independent Schools. Dowling explained that some students have left public schools for private, but some private school students have left as well.

Though the numbers of students leaving might be higher than we know. Some families are making plans to switch mid-year and others are still enrolled at Berkeley schools but have not attended live classes for weeks. “It’s not just the 400 students you are aware of,” Modabber said.

But Modabber, who has a child at King Middle School and one at Berkeley High, is wary of poaching students from local school districts. She said she supports public schools and tries to “discourage” interested parents from making the switch because she doesn’t want the districts to lose funding. Instead, she’s been working with National COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative, co-founded in Berkeley, to help transition schools across the country to outdoor classes, though she admits it’s far more challenging to get a large district learning outside than it was at Golestan.

What are the ramifications of declining enrollment?

In a typical year, school funding would be tied to enrollment, and declining enrollment could mean budget cuts and layoffs. But this year, there are no budget cuts in sight: California will calculate funds based on last year’s enrollment numbers.

“We don’t expect any ramifications in the 2020-2021 school year,” said Trish McDermott, Berkeley Unified School District’s information officer. And McDermott said the district does not expect the decline to last. “We have no reason to believe the decline we’ve seen is attributable to anything other than the pandemic.”

“I was really looking forward to going to Berkeley public schools because they were the best in the country. Now, I’m thinking, ‘do I have to rethink this?’” — Lei Levi

Others aren’t so sure; some parents say that the district’s response to the pandemic has made them lose faith in the public school system, and their disillusionment threatens to persist past the pandemic.

“I was really looking forward to going to Berkeley public schools because they were the best in the country. Now, I’m thinking, ‘do I have to rethink this?’”, said Lei Levi, whose first grader attends Rosa Parks Elementary remotely. Levi has been advocating for more transparency and urgency on plans to reopen schools, especially for the city’s most vulnerable students.

“I think there’s a huge distrust of the district and school board as the ultimate leaders of the district,” said Zachary Weiner, the former PTA president at Rosa Parks, his son’s elementary school. Over the summer, Weiner advocated for BUSD to provide some in-person childcare on top of distance learning, especially for younger children and children whose parents could not work from home. When it became clear that school would be completely virtual, Weiner began making other arrangements for his child. Now, his first grader remains nominally enrolled at BUSD, but does not regularly participate; Weiner has found other ways to get his son engaged and off the computer screen.

In an email to families on Sept. 16, BUSD superintendent Brent Stephens wrote that the district “discourages” families from opting out of Zoom instruction “because of the impact on student learning,” even though it’s allowed under a new California law. He warned that families who are not attending Zoom classes or completing assignments “will be dropped from the district, and will be required to re-enroll to begin attending a BUSD school again.” A seat at a family’s current school would not be saved, he wrote.

But many parents have found distance learning untenable, particularly for their youngest children. Elementary students require constant support, and some working parents — even those working from home — can barely manage. One parent described distance learning as “monitoring Zoom eight hours a day while their kid has a meltdown.” Parents worry about the lack of adult supervision and social interaction, as well as the amount of time kids are spending on screens.

“If schools don’t reopen in the spring, he’s missing an entire year of his education,” said Kasey Harboe Guentert of her youngest son, a first-grader at Jefferson. Harboe Guentert and her husband both work, so she can’t keep an eye on her four kids, but it’s the youngest she is most concerned about. She arranges outdoor playdates, but “the rest of the time, he’s sitting in front of a TV or looking at his tablet. I feel so bad for him.”

Young kids in masks do an outdoor class at Cesar Chavez Park
Students from the Forest School at Cesar Chavez Park. The school has expanded to include students up to fifth grade to meet the needs of families. Photo: Forest School

“There’s a discrepancy between what Berkeley Unified is offering in services and what the needs of the community are,” said Liana Chavarín, who started Berkeley Forest School’s outdoor preschool and kindergarten program almost ten years ago. This year, Chavarín expanded the school to include students up to fifth grade to meet the needs of families.

“There’s a number of families that don’t have an adult that can work from home. There currently isn’t any support for families in that position,” Chavarín said, whose school serves 48 kids who spend the day playing and learning in Berkeley parks.

Parents sang the praises of the Forest school, grateful that their kids can socialize with others and learn in nature. “Our entire family’s mental health improved by our kids being able to be outdoors, be around peers, and be more physically engaged,” said David Moren, a Berkeley parent whose two sons — a fourth grader and a kindergartener — both attend the Forest School.

Challenges highlight inequities

But only some families can afford private schools, raising questions of equity. Berkeley Forest School can cost $20,000 a year, for example, but its sliding scale tuition system means that families pay what they can. As a result, 65% of families pay less than the sticker price and the other families pay more. Aaron Anderson, who described his family as low-income, said the sliding scale tuition made it possible for his son to attend.

Other parents have elected to send their kids to pricier private schools, even though until recently, all but the Golestan School have been online. Some parents say private schools offer more instructional time and a more engaging curriculum. When Deborah Dowling, the head of the California Association for Independent Schools, saw how little live instruction her fifth-grade son would receive at his public elementary school, she chose to send him to a private school instead. Still, Dowling knows that more instructional time isn’t better for everyone. Her tenth grade daughter is thriving with Berkeley High’s schedule, which allows her free time to spend on art and activism.

“I do feel guilty about it,” Dowling said of the decision to send her son to a private school. “I really want to support the public school district. But this was the right choice for my son. He is thriving. He is so happy.”

For all the parents who are able to find better options for their kids, there are the kids who don’t have other choices, whether it’s because families can’t afford private tuition, can’t move away, or simply don’t have time to drive their kid to an outdoor program each day.

“The families who are opting out are families who have options. There’s concern about the families who don’t.” — Cynthia Allman

“I’m on the verge of tears any time I think or talk about it. My kid is so curious and eager to learn and has been very engaged with his learning until the computer intervention happened,” said a parent who wished to remain anonymous. The parent applied to nearly every local private school, but couldn’t afford to switch without financial aid. Her first grade son is still enrolled at Thousand Oaks Elementary.

“The families who are opting out are families who have options. There’s concern about the families who don’t,” said Cynthia Allman, treasurer of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, the local teachers’ union, and a kindergarten teacher at Malcolm X Elementary. Allman doesn’t criticize parents for choosing to opt out of the public system, but she wants to keep the attention on students struggling the most. “As teachers and as the teachers’ union, we try to hold the needs of the kids who are the most vulnerable in this situation.”

One Berkeley parent said families with few resources are struggling to secure reliable internet, let alone think about changing schools.

“If you don’t have money, you can’t pay for the internet and you just don’t have access to school. That inequality is further intensified when you have the means and can take your kids out of public education. We don’t have the choice to go somewhere else,” said the parent, who wished to remain anonymous. He also cautioned that leaving public schools could erode a crucial source of community.

“The public institutions of this country are fundamental as a backbone for providing equality for everyone,” he said. “Public schools unite the entire nation. Without them, the social cohesion in the country is in danger of falling apart.”

A BUSD student attends a class remotely. Photo: Pete Rosos

The challenges of remote learning have been at the center of the conversation as families decided whether to enroll their children in Berkeley Unified or not. Closely intertwined with this is the question of when schools can and should reopen, a contentious issue in Berkeley and throughout the country. In June, 87% of Berkeley Unified families said they preferred to have at least some in-person instruction, according to a survey conducted by the district. Then, cases spiked across the country and, by late July, the district had unveiled a fully remote distance learning plan. Since then, some parents have been advocating for the district to provide partial in-person services, such as childcare, or to reopen schools sooner.

When Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said elementary schools could reopen in-person on October 13, a few local private schools were already operating. The district announced plans to reopen some schools to a limited number of students, possibly on October 26. The news was encouraging, but some parents are still frustrated by what they perceive as the slow pace of reopening.

Some parents see reopening as an equity issue, given how challenging it is for families with fewer resources to ensure their kids have what they need for distance learning.

“In Berkeley, we love to think everything’s about equity. And [distance learning] is so inequitable.” — Ben Buettner

“In Berkeley, we love to think everything’s about equity. And [distance learning] is so inequitable. The kids that are suffering are the ones with the least resources. I just feel like the district has really left those kids behind,” said Ben Buettner, whose first-grader attends Washington Elementary.

The slow pace has led to finger-pointing at the administration and union, who some parents identify as the reason schools have not returned in-person sooner.

“Teachers do want to be back at school when it can be safe for everyone. That’s been our position all along,” said Allman, who is on the union’s team that negotiates with the district. But the logistics of reopening are more complex than people realize, she said. “Neither of us is stalling, neither of us is foot-dragging. If we rush, it serves no one.”

Not all parents lay blame at the feet of the district. One parent who moved to the Sacramento area so his second-grade daughter could attend a private school, said that and the district is “doing a pretty good job with distance learning, given the circumstances.” And many parents heaped gratitude onto the teachers, whom they see trying their best. Allison Landa, whose son is enrolled in transitional kindergarten at Malcolm X Elementary, “can’t say enough good things about the teachers.”

As for the parents who have chosen other options this year, no one can say for sure whether they’ll return. One family loves their new private school, but the cost of tuition might keep them from coming back. Others who have moved aren’t sure whether they will move back and are “keeping an open mind.” The state has not announced how funding will be calculated in future years, but if parents continue to leave the district, there could be consequences.

“We want our community to go to our public schools,” said Allman. More students means more resources and a sense of social cohesion. “If [the families] don’t return to our awesome Berkeley public schools next year, that will be a tremendous loss to our community.”

Harboe Guentert said she’s committed to the district, despite the challenges. “I love Berkeley schools,” she said. “I assume they’ll be back, at some point.”

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...