Elementary school classes, like this one at John Muir, may soon be full of students again. Photo: Pete Rosos

In a surprise announcement, Berkeley Unified on Monday sent out an email to the school community to say it is offering families the option to return their elementary-age students to a five-day schedule of on-campus learning. Grades TK through second can go back to school for full, in-person instruction on March 29, and third, fourth and fifth graders may return April 12. Families will be able to choose to continue distance learning if they prefer.

Lina Stolzenberg, a second grader at Rosa Parks Elementary, was overjoyed when she heard the news Monday evening. Lina stood up on a kitchen chair and shouted, “Yay! Yay!”

“¿Cuándo?” Lina, who is bilingual, asked her mom, wanting to know when she could go back to school in-person. “¿Mañana?”

The plan is a major shift from the district’s previous offer of hybrid learning for all students, and comes after months of negotiations between the school district and its union.

“As case rates have fallen and as we’ve been in communication with our public health institutions, we wanted to see if this path was possible,” said Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. “After communicating with our members, we saw there was enough support to pursue a full in-person model,” indicating that teachers supported the choice to return to full in-person.

The district does not have a signed agreement with the union, according to Meyer, and the details of the plan have yet to be negotiated. But the union has agreed to move forward with full, in-person instruction for elementary students “because it’s going to serve our students and help our teachers do their best job, too,” Meyer said. A hybrid model would require more work for teachers, who would have to produce instructional materials for two sets of students, Meyer said.

The announcement comes three days after Governor Gavin Newsom signed into law Assembly Bill 86, which provides $2 billion in financial incentive grants for districts that open schools before April 1. To receive the grant money in full, districts not in the Purple Tier must offer in-person learning to all elementary students and secondary students in at least one grade level, though this can include hybrid learning. Districts must also offer in-person learning to students with “exceptional needs.”

Rising pressure to reopen

BUSD parent protest to reopen schools
There has been rising pressure from families for schools to reopen. This protest was on Jan. 13. Photo: Pete Rosos

The agreement was made amid rising pressure to reopen schools in Berkeley.

Over the past several months, the local fight to reopen schools gained national attention, as a group of parents arranged protests outside of elementary schools, met with elected officials, and threatened to sue the district. Last week, a video of Meyer dropping his toddler off at preschool went viral, bringing even more scrutiny to the debate about reopening.

Mara Kolesas, had been advocating for schools to reopen with a group called BUSD Parents. Like her daughter, Kolesas was thrilled when learned schools would open five days a week.

“I’m exhilarated. I couldn’t fall asleep until two in the morning,” Kolesas said. “We’ve been advocating all along for what we got yesterday, which was five days in person and a distance learning option, which is the most equitable option.”

Not everyone pleased with the reopening decision

Not all parents celebrated the decision, however. Families will need to complete an enrollment form for each of their elementary school students to facilitate BUSD’s planning. Some parents were frustrated that they have to choose in-person learning or distance learning for their child by March 11, before they know the details of the schedule. The commitment will be binding for the remainder of the school year.

Students who opt for distance learning will likely receive a new teacher, who will conduct classes remotely over Zoom. It remains to be seen how many families will opt for distance learning. Teachers who will teach online will likely include those with special accommodations that exempt them from in-person instruction, according to Meyer. Once teachers have received both doses of the vaccine, they will be obligated to return to in-person learning, unless they have an exemption, Meyer said.

The requirement that teachers return to in-person instruction once vaccinated prompted concern that some with underlying conditions would be required to teach in-person: “The policy of trying to force all teachers back to the classroom discriminates not only on the basis of disability but denies families and students the right to maintain distance learning,” Linda Clark, a Special Education teacher in Berkeley, said in a statement from activist group BAMN about the decision.

Returning to school will include a host of safety measures, including ventilation, stable groups, and face coverings. Students are expected to remain socially distanced, remaining six feet apart from one another when possible and four feet apart when it is not. Previously, Superintendent Brent Stephens had said that four feet of distance was not permissible, necessitating a hybrid model. In this plan, students will still remain six feet apart from teachers.

“I feel pretty confident going back for myself. I’m more concerned about the students and their families.” — fifth grade teacher

Even with safety measures in place, community spread remains a concern for some once schools reopen with packed classrooms.

“I feel pretty confident going back for myself. I’m more concerned about the students and their families,” said Jennifer Wendel, a fifth grade teacher at Thousand Oaks. “A lot of them have older abuelitas and relatives at home. The families are concerned about the kids carrying something, not realizing that they have it, and bringing it home.”

Alameda County announced a shift from the COVID-19 purple tier to the less restrictive red tier today, which makes secondary schools eligible to reopen. Berkeley Unified has not announced a new plan for middle and high school students. As of last week, the tentative plan was for middle and high school students to attend school in-person twice a week in the afternoons for on-campus activities, a minimal hybrid model that would keep core academic learning in the distance learning schedule.

BUSD Parents said they would continue to keep the pressure on the schools to reopen for secondary students.

“The decision made me optimistic that we’ll succeed in collaborating with BUSD to provide in-person learning for middle and high schoolers,” said Pat Reilly, a mom of a seventh grader at King Middle School and a ninth grader at Berkeley High who has been active with the parent group.

The next three weeks will be a frenzy of work for district administrators, union leaders, teachers, and staff, who will be preparing for the majority of students to return to campuses for the first time in over a year.

“We’re thrilled we will see many of our elementary school students back on campus every day, having fun and enjoying time with classmates, meeting their teachers in person, and learning together,” Superintendent Stephens told Berkeleyside. “We are a community at BUSD, and after so much time apart, being together will lift our spirits.”

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Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...