Empty schoolyard at Sylvia Mendez Elementary School in Berkeley during shelter-in-place order. Photo: Pete Rosos

Update: At a town hall on March 17, Superintendent Stephens said that he does not expect any substitutes to be teaching students who remain in distance learning.Update: At a town hall on March 16, Superintendent Brent Stephens said that he thinks distance learning students will be taught by BUSD teachers and substitutes will be used for in-person classes. “We may here and there have a substitute working in distance learning, but by and large I think our substitutes will be working in-person,” he said. This is a change from what Stephens told Berkeleyside on Monday, that he would “prefer to have a mix of substitutes for in-person and distance learning.” Stephens also said the district is planning to maintain a connection between students in distance learning and their current schools through weekly assemblies or check-ins with students’ current teacher.


An afterthought. Second class. The short end of the stick.

This is how parents of elementary schoolers who have opted for distance learning are describing Berkeley Unified’s plan for their children’s final months of the school year, which they fear will mean substitutes with little experience in distance learning scrambling to teach jumbled groups of students online.

As BUSD prepares to reopen elementary schools five days per week, parents are speaking up to make sure that students remaining in distance learning are not left behind.

“I trusted that if they were going to reopen, the district would not completely abandon the rest of us,” said Roberto Santiago, a parent of a kindergartener and 4th grader at Malcolm X Elementary. “But the plans for distance learning are completely inadequate.”

On March 8, Berkeley Unified changed course from a hybrid model and announced plans to fully reopen elementary schools. In the same email, the district sent out an enrollment survey, giving parents less than three days to decide whether to send their student in-person or choose distance learning, a binding decision for the rest of the year. The district then extended the deadline to Sunday night.

In response, 17% of Berkeley elementary families chose distance learning. As of Tuesday, an estimated 6% of families had not submitted the survey, according to spokesperson Trish McDermott. The district is reaching out to those families personally, Superintendent Brent Stephens said.

Tonight, Berkeley Unified will hold two town halls in English and in Spanish to provide more information about its plans to reopen elementary schools and the distance learning option.

Will distance learners get the short end of the stick?

At town halls held at elementary schools throughout the district last week, parents were led to believe that children in distance learning will get “the short end of the stick.”

“What I’ve learned is that there’s almost no plan for the children who choose distance learning. It seems like almost all of the resources are being put toward in-person,” said Matt Soto-Rosen, a parent at Sylvia Mendez whose 5th grader has health concerns that make returning to in-person learning too risky. “We didn’t choose any of this. It just feels like a slap in the face.”

Parents worry that distance learners are more likely to be stuck with a substitute than students on-campus, especially a substitute without experience teaching online. Another concern is that students will be mixed with students from other Berkeley elementary schools— is there a plan to keep students from the same classes together? On top of that, students in distance learning will receive a new principal dedicated to remote learners, which some parents say makes their children feel disconnected from their school community.

“We have great quality teachers. We have a great principal at Sylvia Mendez. That’s all being ripped away from us because we have the misfortune of having to deal with a health issue,” Soto-Rosen said.

Superintendent Brent Stephens said he would “prefer to have a mix of substitutes for in-person and distance learning.” Currently, teachers for distance learning will include those who want accommodations, who have applied to continue teaching online, substitutes, and other BUSD staff. It remains to be seen how many BUSD teachers will provide remote instruction.

Enrichment classes will continue for distance learners. Teachers providing music or other enrichment for students will likely be expected to teach both in-person and online, according to Stephens.

The concerns deepen for parents at Sylvia Mendez, where a two-way language immersion program hangs in the balance. Typically, students at the school receive instruction in Spanish and English, but substitutes who speak Spanish have always been hard to come by. If all the teachers are in-person, will students receive Spanish-language instruction? “If the district has a two-way immersion program, they need to support it,” said Melanie Tang, a parent of a 3rd grader and 5th grader at Sylvia Mendez.

“It seems like they’re setting up a two-track system with the distance learners at a disadvantage,” said Tang.

The district is working to find Spanish-speaking substitutes for students at Sylvia Mendez. “We know it’s a need and expectation that our families have and we want to deliver on it,” Stephens said. In addition, the district plans to hold separate remote classes for Sylvia Mendez students to keep the Spanish-language portion of their education intact, according to Stephens.

BUSD parent protest to reopen schools
A January protest at Thousand Oaks Elementary School to pressure BUSD to reopen schools full-time. Photo: Pete Rosos

An equity issue: Whose voice is getting heard?

In the debate about reopening schools, parents on both sides have argued that equity is at stake, with those pushing for reopening arguing that in-person learning protects the most vulnerable. Now, parents who have opted for distance learning are raising their voices in opposition to a movement that they feel has unjustly claimed to represent ‘the most equitable option.’

Parents who have opted for distance learning are raising their voices in opposition to a movement they feel has unjustly claimed to represent ‘the most equitable option.’

“It feels like the white, more affluent parents who wanted to open the schools got everything they wanted,” said Ludovic Blain, the parent of a fifth-grader at Sylvia Mendez. “Given how white the protesters were and the crazy messages that said they were doing it for racial justice, they were not certainly representing my interests. That’s fine, but they said they were.”

Data about which families have chosen to send their children back is limited. The district did not ask families about their race or ethnicity on the elementary enrollment form. At Sylvia Mendez, 64% of families have selected in-person learning, the smallest share in the district (16% of families at the school have not responded to the survey).  The elementary school with the largest share of families choosing in-person learning is Ruth Acty in North Berkeley. There, 85% of families chose in-person learning and less than 2% have not responded the survey.

In a November survey, half of the white parents surveyed by Berkeley Unified supported reopening in a hybrid model as soon as possible, compared to 36% of Black parents, 31% of Latinx parents, and 30% of Asian parents.

Santiago said his reluctance to send his child back to school is deeper than a concern about the spread of COVID-19. It’s about a broader distrust of Berkeley schools and public education in general on the part of some families of color. “Schools are full of systemic racism. They haven’t kept us safe in the best of times. I don’t trust the school district to keep us safe now,” said Santiago, whose children are the third generation in his family to attend Berkeley public schools.

Given the uncertainty around what distance learning will look like, families who are not sending their children back to school, especially for health reasons, say they are being short-changed.

“For some of us, going back is not an option,” said Tang, whose third-grader has severe asthma. “It’s actually too dangerous for our family. I feel like that has gotten lost in all the outrage about wanting to open the schools full-time right away.”

“Those of us who have real concerns about health feel like we’re getting second class treatment,” Ludovic said. “I’m Black and my wife is Latina. We know many people who have gotten COVID and died, including family members and friends.”

Last week, frustrated by the district’s decisions around distance learning, Santiago co-founded Berkeley Unified Distance Choice Advocates, a group of parents and teachers advocating for a more robust distance-learning option.

The recently-formed group includes teachers who would like more choice on whether to return to in-person instruction. Currently, teachers who have been vaccinated are expected to return to school, unless they have a special accommodation, such as an at-risk family-member who has not been vaccinated, according to the district’s current MOU with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers. “If you don’t force teachers back, we have a better chance of keeping great teachers in distance learning,” Santiago said.

The group formed to carve out a space for families with different views amidst the heated debate about reopening in Berkeley. “I did not know I had to go out and stamp my feet and hold a protest,” Santiago said. But the district’s paltry plans for distance learning and the radical tactics of some pushing for reopening made him think differently.

“I realized I needed to start fighting back,” Santiago said. “We want to make ourselves known and make our needs known, but we’re not going to spray paint buildings and follow people around with a camera.”

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,...