On Sunday, KQED published a story about the leader of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers sending his toddler to a private, in-person preschool while at the same time advocating that Berkeley public schools should only reopen to in-person learning when teachers are vaccinated, among other criteria.
The story was prompted by a group of anonymous activist parents who filmed the BFT head taking his toddler to school, and posted the video on Twitter. The group posted a statement online saying, “the only thing keeping our schools closed is cowardice — and union donations to politicians,” and it promised to “out” the men “responsible.”
The story was picked up by Fox News, the San Francisco Chronicle, the New York Post and other local and national media. Some of the coverage suggested that the head of the BFT was a “COVID hypocrite” and it has spawned some vitriolic responses, including a voicemail to Berkeleyside in which the caller wished harm on the BFT leader.
Berkeleyside has known this information for about a month. Many readers have been in touch asking why we have not published a story. Some accused us of not fulfilling our duty. We chose not to write about it, however, because we determined it wasn’t a story. We still don’t think it is.
Berkeley does not have universal preschool: The Berkeley Unified School District runs a limited state-funded preschool program predominantly geared to low-income families. There are just 175 students enrolled, according to Trish McDermott, BUSD’s public information officer.
“It is a program that serves primarily low-income families and we are required to enroll families based on need (income, guardian seeking work, guardian going to school, foster child, homeless, etc.),” McDermott said in an email. “If we have spaces after enrolling all families who qualify for our subsidized program we then enroll full cost families.”
In addition, to attend a BUSD-run, state-funded preschool, a child must be at least 2 years, 9 months old. The child of the union president is too young to qualify for the BUSD preschool program.
No special treatment: Unlike other news outlets, Berkeleyside did not see this situation as the union president seeking out special treatment for his child while denying education to other children. We did not see any hypocrisy here.
A private matter: Families make many personal decisions regarding the education of their children and, in this case, Berkeleyside deemed it was just that and not in the public interest to report on it.
Not an elected official: The head of the BFT is not a publicly elected official. He is selected by his peers to lead the teachers union. Yes, he has influence and plays a large role in setting the terms in which teachers will agree to return to the classroom. But he is not a public official accountable to the general residents of Berkeley.
BUSD and the BFT have agreed to return to more in-person instruction beginning in late March and rolling out through mid-April.
While the district and the teachers union have been far apart at times during the negotiations to reopen schools and increase the amount of in-person learning, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens has gone out of his way to stress the importance of civility in the talks.
The district released a statement about the issue, on Monday, in which Superintendent Stephens wrote that the video released by parents “invades the privacy of a family in our school community and targets one of our educators.” He concludes: “Looking to what’s ahead of us, in these last weeks before we reopen, nothing is served by treating members of our community, including our teachers – and the teacher who represents them as their union president – as the enemy. We compromise our collective well-being if we don’t respect one another and treat each other with compassion.”
The BUSD Parents for Open Schools, a group that is pushing to reopen Berkeley schools as quickly as possible, denounced the filming and distribution of the video. “We do not condone tactics that invade private lives and transform a public discourse on public education into a debate of personal choices,” the group’s statement reads.
Ty Alper, the president of the Berkeley School Board, also expressed his dismay on Twitter about parents’ decision to target the BFT head and the subsequent news coverage, writing: “I now worry about the fraying of our shared values of respect and decency.”
Berkeleyside’s small editorial team makes decisions every day about what to report on based on our bandwidth and our editorial judgment. These decisions are, of course, subjective, and some readers will disagree with us on some of the calls we make, which is fine. And we are fallible, but we aim to be as transparent as possible about our reasoning
We also believe that, sometimes, it is as important to know when not to publish as when to publish.
(Featured image: Gautam Arora/Unsplash)