Berkeley Unified announces tentative plan to return to hybrid learning this spring

The union needs to ratify the agreement and teachers need to be vaccinated, but more in-person instruction could ramp up by late-March to mid-April.

A view of Berkeley High School in the early days of the pandemic.  A tentative agreement between BUSD and the teachers union could bring high schoolers back as soon as mid-April Photo: Pete Rosos

The Berkeley Unified School District has reached a tentative agreement with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers to reopen public schools this spring, once district staff members are vaccinated.

Students in preschool through second grade would return to class on March 29, according to the agreement. Those in grades 3 through 9 would return on April 12. High schoolers in grades 10 through 12 would return on April 19.

The district is also coordinating a series of mass vaccination events for BUSD employees for the weeks of February 22nd and March 8. Together, these actions mark a decisive step toward reopening in-person education, amid rising pressure to reopen schools and months of negotiations.

“This plan is the Gold Standard,” said Matt Myer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. “Social distancing, mask-wearing, and vaccinations for adults will create the safest environment for in-person education for the end of this year.”

The dates are contingent upon district employees getting the first dose of the Moderna vaccine the week of February 22nd. If there is a delay in distribution, reopening will also be delayed. If district employees are able to receive the Pfizer vaccine, which requires fewer days between inoculations, schools will reopen one week sooner.

Many teachers, students, and families celebrated the announcement, which offers concrete hope for in-person education close to a year after schools shut their doors due to the COVID-19 pandemic in March.

“I’m thrilled that there’s a date set. I’m excited to just spend time with my students, but I don’t know what it’s going to look like. It’s hard for me to imagine it,” said Joanna Petrone, who teaches 6th-grade social studies at Longfellow Middle School. “I know I’m going to have to adjust my expectations. I’m not going to be able to give them a hug.”

The district has chosen hybrid learning to accommodate social distancing requirements outlined by California’s Department of Health and Human Services. The guidelines state that student chairs be placed 6 feet apart. Where this is impossible, the district should make a “good-faith effort… to consider all outdoor/indoor space options and hybrid learning models.” The details of the hybrid schedules will be negotiated between the district and union in the coming weeks.

“We’re still concerned because it only puts forth a hybrid schedule that doesn’t work for many working families,” said Lei Levi, a parent of a 1st grader at Rosa Parks who has been pushing for reopening with a group calling themselves BUSD Parents, which is affiliated with Open Schools California. “It’s a small victory, but we feel like we’re not being heard. We’re going to keep the pressure on.”

BUSD parent protest to reopen schools
Groups of parents have been holding demonstrations demanding that BUSD reopen schools. This one happened outside Thousand Oaks Elementary School on Jan. 13.  Photo: Pete Rosos

The day before the announcement, a group of six lawyers with kids at BUSD elementary penned a letter threatening the district with legal action if they did not fully reopen schools. The letter argues that the district violates “students’ constitutional right to a free public school education.”

“The law says the district has a requirement to reopen to the greatest extent possible,” Rob Schwartz, one of the lawyers who wrote the letter emailed to Berkeleyside. “The greatest extent possible doesn’t require a hybrid model. If they had the will and desire to do it, they could reopen full-time now.”

On the other side, some educators are opposed to any person-learning for fear of community spread, even once teachers are vaccinated. “I’m deeply concerned about the health and safety of my students, of their families, of our staff’s families, and of our whole community,” said Jonas LaMattery-Brownell, who teaches kids who are hospitalized at Herrick Hospital and who also works in the independent study and home instruction programs. LaMattery-Brownell said he would consider not returning to work even when vaccinated out of consideration for the health of his students and their families.

For their part, students also have mixed reactions to the announcement. While a majority of students badly want to return to school, students recognize the nuances of the issue. “This is not teachers vs. students or teachers vs. parents,” said Kea Morshed, a 9th grader at Berkeley High School. “While the CDC says vaccines are technically not a requirement to reopen, it’s important to get the trust of teachers. They’re the people who make school happen.”

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Email: Twitter: allymarkovich.