Berkeley High School, March 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Berkeley High School, March 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin

High schools and middle schools are eligible to open up in-person learning in November, Alameda County and Berkeley’s health officer announced Wednesday, but Berkeley Unified campuses will not be prepared to welcome students back until next year.

The district has been engaged in numerous conversations around in-person learning since campuses shut down in March, and, more concretely, since Alameda County and Berkeley moved into less-restrictive tiers in the state’s COVID-19 monitoring system. On Wednesday, Sup. Brent Stephens said the earliest middle and high school campuses could open would be Jan. 13 — in line with current targets for some elementary classes.

At meetings in the last few weeks, the board approved a phased return plan bringing small cohorts of elementary school students who have been experiencing “learning loss” back onto four campuses, five days a week from Nov. 9. On Nov. 30, these cohorts at Rosa Parks, Malcolm X, Jefferson and the new Oxford elementary schools will increase in size from eight to 14 students.

They also OK’d a target reopening date of Jan. 13 for all other TK, K-2 students, and Jan. 20 for grades 3-5. This is a huge step for the district, which decided in July to pivot into distance learning only as coronavirus cases increased throughout the region.

After cases stabilized, the district began making public its plans for hybrid learning and posted an elementary schools readiness checklist. It outlines processes like securing cleaning supplies and face coverings for students and staff, planning bus transportation, daily health screenings and employee testing.

These will be much more complicated at the middle and high school levels, however, where students switch between teachers for every subject and cannot remain in stable bubble groups like young children. Sup. Brent Stephens said a similar dashboard for upper-level schools could be prepared as early as next week, but many of the facilities-related readiness measures apply to all grade-level campuses.

Middle and high school campuses will likely not reopen before elementary schools, he added, and it’s too early to determine whether the same cohort approach would succeed with older students. The board will discuss the possibilities at its next meeting on Nov. 4, and all of these changes hinge on community COVID-19 transmission remaining low.

“It really comes down to a question of the wisdom of attempting multiple openings at multiple levels at the same time, or whether or not it would be better to stage those openings, let’s say, over the course of three to four weeks,” Stephens said.

Ultimately, distance learning and hybrid learning will be the reality for students in all grade levels going into next year. Campuses are only allowed to open at 50% capacity for the time being and 43% of families indicated in the latest survey (issued between Oct. 15-18) that they were not yet ready to return children to campuses.

Some public commenters criticized its three-day turnaround, and said some families and caregivers don’t have time to submit a “poorly administered” survey atop their many other responsibilities. Students who may not be represented in these surveys — including those who are homeless, victims of domestic abuse, or low-income — are the ones who most desperately need in-person learning, they said.

These divisions in preferences and needs will make it necessary for schools to offer hybrid learning, and teachers to split their time between in-person classes and “live-instruction” requirements. In-person learning will remain optional for families going into next year to allow them flexibility, Stephens said.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers reached an agreement with BUSD this month that details health and safety requirements for teachers who will return to campuses. It’s understood in this plan that middle and high schools would be a much later step in the phased return to campuses, Treasurer Cynthia Allman said.

She said the union is currently very focused on responding to the challenges of hybrid education — like keeping all students matched with their teachers even if the same staff have to teach a group of students in person — and assessing results from the cohort “pilot program” in November.

“Do we wholesale re-shuffle kids assignments to teachers, and even schools? I don’t think that’s good either,” said Allman, who’s a kindergarten teacher at Malcom X Elementary School. “Every time you pull a thread something unravels — it’s a huge challenge.”

Though it’s useful to know COVID-19 conditions have greatly improved in the city and county, Allman emphasized that there’s numerous problems that aren’t related to health to solve at the campus level, and “we’re not dragging our feet” in returning to in-person learning.

“Information about how we’re doing health wise from the city is a good thing … it’s not the whole answer,” Allman said. “I’m in favor of lots of information, lots of clear information, but people have to realize then to look for all the information and not just focus in on that city announcement as the only source of information about the schools.”

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...