Berkeley parents protest oustide BUSD heaquarters and march to Longfellow Middle School to ask the district to allow students back to public school.
Berkeley parents protested outside BUSD headquarters and marched to Longfellow Middle School Saturday to ask the district to allow all students back to in-person classes. Photo: Pete Rosos

One year after Berkeley public schools shut their doors, and just a week after the district announced it would offer in-person elementary classes five days per week starting March 29, some parents are still pushing for middle and high schools to fully reopen. A protest this weekend was the latest action by a group of parents who have been advocating for reopening since the fall.

On Saturday afternoon, about 150 parents and kids marched from the Berkeley Unified School District offices on Bonar Street to Longfellow Middle School, where School Board Director Laura Babbitt and City Councilmember Rashi Kesarwani awaited the group.

The event was organized by BUSD Parents for Open Schools, a group that has been calling for schools to open for months, staging protests and meeting with city officials.

Parents at the rally celebrated the reopening of elementary schools on Saturday — students will receive five hours of in-person instruction, five days per week — but said it was not enough.

“We are very happy, but our work is not done. We want five full days for everyone,” said Mara Kolesas, a parent of two elementary-aged kids leading the charge to reopen schools.

What the schedule will look like for secondary students is still being negotiated between the district and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. Third through ninth graders should return to school on April 12, while tenth through 12th graders will return on April 19. As of now, the tentative hybrid model for secondary schools would provide two hours of in-person instruction twice per week in the afternoons, in addition to after-school activities.

“Four hours a week?,” Shamik Dasgupta, a Berkeley parent and leader within the group, asked the crowd on Saturday. “That is not an open school. That is a closed school with a cherry on top.”

However, some worry that full reopening is too risky. Current CDC guidelines say that full, in-person instruction, in which students mix between classes and activities, can increase the spread of COVID-19. The guidelines say that risk can be mitigated with masks, social distancing, and hand-washing.

Others are concerned that students opting for remote learning will be left behind. 17% of Berkeley’s elementary families chose distance learning over full, in-person instruction. These students will likely receive a new teacher and classmates from other elementary schools across the district in virtual classrooms for the remainder of the school year.

Berkeley parents protest oustide BUSD heaquarters and march to Longfellow Middle School to ask the district to allow students back to public school.
Mara Kolesas, a parent with BUSD Parents for Open Schools and the former president of Berkeley PTA Council, holds up signs promoting reopening in front of the Berkeley Unified district office. Photo: Pete Rosos

Several local officials showed their support for full reopening at Saturday’s protest, including School Board Director Babbitt and City Councilmember Kesarwani. A representative for City Councilmember Ben Bartlett also spoke at the rally.

Kesarwani said she worries about the impact of distance learning on Berkeley’s most vulnerable students and those suffering with depression and anxiety.

“As a student, I also suffered from depression and I know that it’s a serious, life-threatening illness. Our children’s lives matter,” she said.

As part of the first phase of the district’s reopening plan, about 1,000 students with the highest needs are already receiving in-person instruction, according to Superintendent Brent Stephens.

Babbitt led the crowd in a chant for reopening: “When I say ‘we can do’, you say ‘better than this.” At the rally, Babbitt collected and distributed P.P.E. to support safe school reopening and Babbitt’s daughter read a speech by San Francisco Mayor London Breed London.

Berkeley parents protest oustide BUSD heaquarters and march to Longfellow Middle School to ask the district to allow students back to public school.
School Board Director Laura Babbitt spoke to the crowd on Saturday, saying that the district can and should do more to reopen schools. Photo: Pete Rosos

In Berkeley and across the country, the debate around reopening schools has become increasingly charged, with some pitting teachers’ unions against struggling students. On Saturday in San Francisco, hundreds of parents and kids marched to reopen schools five days per week. Prominent local politicians, including Mayor London Breed and state Sen. Scott Wiener, spoke at the rally.

Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguin and Vice Mayor Lori Droste issued a statement in support of reopening schools.

“You have our commitment to continue working to help our children get back in school. They need it. You need it. We all need it,” Arreguin and Droste said in the statement.

When the school district surveyed secondary families three weeks ago, three-quarters of parents said they prefer a hybrid model over distance learning. The district does not have recent survey data showing how many parents would prefer schools to reopen five days per week.

At last week’s school board meeting, Superintendent Brent Stephens said that logistics posed a barrier to reopening secondary schools five days per week. Class sizes for middle and high school are larger than at the elementary school level, and the schedule makes a cohort model difficult, he said.

Participants in the march said that logistics should not be a barrier to reopening secondary schools, however.

“When there’s a will, there’s a way. Right here, there’s a will. We say to BUSD, find a way,” Dasgupta told the crowd on Saturday, who erupted in cheers. “A week ago, it was impossible for elementary, and look where we are now.”

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,...