A sign just outside the entrance to the MLK Jr. Middle School test site asks people looking for free COVID-19 testing to wait to be called. Testing is by appointment only. July 9, 2020. Photo: Pete Rosos

Despite being open minimally for in-person education, Berkeley Unified School District has already seen a handful of COVID-19 cases at its campuses. The district has now created a public dashboard to track these cases.

There have been seven total cases at elementary schools since March, the highest number among the campuses. Elementary schools are the only location where the district is offering small, cohort-based in-person education for about 70 students. The classes began in the fall.

During a school board meeting on Wednesday, Sup. Brent Stephens clarified that these cases involve employees who have worked on campus and tested positive for the virus, but there have been no reports of person-to-person transmission at the sites.

The dashboard is one in a series of steps the district is taking toward reopening campuses, which is currently not allowed under state shelter-in-place orders instituted because of an ongoing surge of cases that may be worsening after the New Year’s Eve and Christmas holidays.

There have been 7 total COVID-19 cases at Berkeley elementary schools, some of which are currently hosting students on campus for in-person education. These initial campuses were Jefferson, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, with plans for Oxford at West Campus.
There have been 7 total cases at elementary schools, some of which are currently hosting students on campus for in-person education. These initial campuses were Jefferson, Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, with plans for Oxford at West Campus.

Tracking community transmission has been one of BUSD’s central goals when it comes to reopening campuses, which involves a lengthy list of requirements from the city, county office of education and the state. It currently has four separate reopening dashboards for elementary and middle schools, Berkeley High and Berkeley Technology Academy.

Transmission is also a major factor in negotiations between the Berkeley Federation of Teachers union and BUSD, which have agreed to keep schools closed since March but differ on when to reopen them. BFT wants to wait until Alameda County returns to the orange tier, whereas BUSD wants to follow state guidelines in reopening at the red tier.

The last time Alameda County was in the red tier, in the fall, the district hadn’t yet finished its progress checklist to open campuses. More of those requirements are completed now, but the county’s cases are far from meeting state guidelines. Even though test positivity sits within red at 7.8%, the adjusted daily case rate is about 32 per 100,000 residents as of Friday, when it needs to be seven or below to reopen.

“It’s important for the community to understand that COVID[-19] is on campus, and this is even without having our students or our full staff there,” BFT President Matt Meyer told Berkeleyside. BUSD had failed to notify the union of cases in the past, he said, and the dashboard is a positive step toward transparency.

Under ongoing negotiations, BUSD and BFT will also decide a threshold for how many cases would shut down a campus or classroom. BFT is also asking that all students, along with staff, be tested for COVID-19. Others have also called for all students to be vaccinated. This could face legal obstacles, as the state has not required mandatory vaccinations.

But it may be a while before this threshold becomes relevant. On Wednesday, Stephens said it’s unlikely the county will lower its community transmission by February, and, on the contrary, it’s likely to increase with the expected New Year’s Eve and Christmas surges. Once numbers drop, it will take another 4-5 weeks of consistent numbers to gain permission from the state to reopen.

Correction: This story originally said BFT is calling for students to be vaccinated, but they are actually calling for them to be tested for COVID-19, along with staff. Other community members have asked that students be vaccinated.

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...