BUSD Reopening Debate

BUSD officials and parents with varying perspectives on school reopening discussed student mental health, labor negotiations and education loss during the COVID-19 pandemic at a live forum on Wednesday evening after Superintendent Brent Stephens’ “state of the district” message to the school community.

Berkeley schools shut down in March 2020, and almost one year later, only small cohort groups of elementary school students are in actual classrooms. This is the case at many districts throughout the Bay Area, but some — like Marin County — have been able to open up additional classrooms and take in more students, though no public school district locally has fully returned to in-person instruction.

As parents struggle to manage their children’s education, their own jobs, childcare and more, a fierce debate has developed between parents who want BUSD to reopen its schools at the largest possible capacity immediately and those who don’t yet think it’s safe to return. Wednesday night’s meeting, where BUSD offered a rare opportunity to ask live questions, quickly filled up to capacity at 500 people.

Berkeley recently returned to the purple tier after being in regional shelter-in-place order due to dipping ICU capacity, and the district is two tiers away from being able to open on a larger scale.

So far, according to BUSD’s reopening dashboard for elementary students, all the health and safety requirements are met for reopening once Alameda County hits the red tier. Staff requirements, like substitute staff for employees who have state and federal accommodations to stay home, as well as labor negotiations, are not yet complete.

Stephens repeatedly described the labor negotiation process as important, respected and required by law. If BUSD reached a stalemate with the union or tried to be aggressive, he said it could lead to state-mandated delays and effectively result in schools not opening at all.

While he has said in recent weeks that labor negotiations are one of the only factors left in reopening schools once it’s allowed, he has also stressed that parents should not be directing disrespect toward the teachers union.

Stephens has suggested that the initial hybrid model agreed upon by BUSD and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers is a “start,” with an “AM/PM” system that would include distance learning in the morning and on-campus education, as well as aftercare in the afternoon and evening. This would come into play when more elementary schools reopen in the red tier. But Laura Babitt, a newly elected board member, said creating an inadequate model and changing it later would only result in delays and further jeopardize student health.

Though a majority of the discussion focused on elementary schools, Stephens also elaborated on his vision for the coming fall for all grade levels, saying “We will see a version of school where masks are ubiquitous,” in 2022. He said middle and high schools will most certainly be open by the fall of 2021. He said this will be possible through the ongoing vaccine campaign, as well as ramped-up testing and logistics secured over the last year.

Hollis Williams, a teacher and parent, pleaded with the community to understand what this means — if teachers are asking for certain accommodations to keep their students safe, in addition to those recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, we should be listening to them, he said.

One parent spoke to Stephens directly in the live question portion, saying the district has failed parents in communicating their goals and progress clearly, though he said the district has slightly improved in this area by releasing progress dashboards on both negotiations and health logistics toward reopening.

School Board President Ty Alper also made an appeal to community members who have harshly criticized the district and teachers for failing their students. “The enemy is the pandemic, it’s not each other,” he said, touching on divisions that have been created between vulnerable students who need to be in school, teachers who need the vaccine to safely return, parents who are struggling and other members of the community.

As school closures persist, caregivers say students’ mental health is at stake

Babitt’s remarks on deteriorating mental health among youth and reports of surging student suicides resonated with many families and caregivers who have seen their children struggle with shut down campuses and a lack of socialization. She sent a letter to the City Council earlier in week questioning BFT’s demands and the pace of school openings.

Parent Claudia Eyzaguirre also suggested that BUSD is moving the goalposts when it comes to the science of reopening. The CDC recently published a report saying schools can reopen if adequate precautions are taken, and parents have been pointing to scientific opinions from doctors who back school reopenings over the last several months. “Adequate precautions” has a different definition for some parents, compared to some teachers.

While this debate runs on, however, Eyzaguirre is watching her child’s education and interest in school plummet. He watches “12 pranks that went too far” on YouTube instead of focusing on online courses. Eyzaguirre is busy running a business, and said she’s had to resign herself to being a bad parent while trying, and failing, to support her child’s education from home.

She also said BUSD’s most recent survey of parents was flawed. In it, 46% of elementary school parents said they were ready for their kids to return to on-campus learning in a hybrid model as soon as possible, while 32% said they were not ready to return and 22% were unsure. Middle school parents said the same, while 49% of high school parents were eager to send their students back as soon as possible.

Those who said “no” on the survey did so because they don’t appreciate the hybrid model, or can’t get their kids to and from school in a short window during the workday — not because they don’t want to go back, Eyzaguirre said.

Berkeley is in Phase 1A of its vaccination program and it’s slowly getting starting on Phase 1B as of Thursday. This means healthcare workers and people 75 and above are getting vaccines, and the city will then move on to educators and other essential workers when the supply becomes available, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko. Limited supply is a huge obstacle for Berkeley, as well as jurisdictions across the United States. Currently, the city has ordered the maximum number of possible doses at 3,500.

People over 65 have already started getting shots from healthcare providers, but school community members are asking for a mass effort from the local government to get teachers vaccinated. Earlier in the year, they also advocated for teachers to be in higher tiers. This was ultimately successful, as educators are now in Phase 1B, tier 1, but healthcare providers have not yet begun giving doses to teachers.

Berkeleyside has a COVID-19 vaccine guide that’s being frequently updated to answer all questions surrounding the rollout. The full “state of the district” from Stephens is available on YouTube.

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...