On March 10, Marvin Reed, a third-grade teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary, maneuvered his Honda Civic to the back of a long line of cars at Golden Gate Fields. Decked out in his Berkeley Teachers T-shirt, Reed waited to get his second dose of the Pfizer vaccine. He is among the 18,000 people in Berkeley who have received both doses of the vaccine for COVID-19.
“It’s such a weight lifted off,” said Reed, who is excited to welcome students back into his classroom after over a year of remote learning. Students from transition kindergarten to second grade will return to campuses on March 29, while third, fourth, and fifth graders will come back on April 12.
The district has yet to announce concrete reopening plans for secondary students, but as of now, students will likely receive two hours of instruction on campus twice per week.
After receiving his first dose three weeks prior, Reed posted about the vaccine in Class Dojo, an app teachers use to stay connected to students and manage their classrooms. His students were excited, immediately asking whether it meant they could go back to school in-person.
“We’re working on it,” Reed told his students.
Now, with both doses of the vaccine to protect him and reopening less than ten days away, Reed is as eager as his students and families to get back to in-person teaching.
Berkeley Federation of Teachers reached an agreement with the district on Feb. 17 that teachers would be vaccinated before being required to teach in-person. In turn, the city of Berkeley reserved vaccines for BUSD employees. California Governor Gavin Newsom followed up with an order for counties to set aside 10% of all first doses for educators and childcare workers, starting on March 1.
Educator vaccines have been a controversial sticking point in the debate around reopening in Berkeley. Since CDC guidelines do not require that educators get vaccinated before schools reopen, some saw BFT’s requirement for vaccines as a delay at a time when students badly needed in-person instruction.
Some teachers will not return in-person and instead provide instruction to students who are remaining in distance learning. These teachers either have a medical exemption or applied to continue teaching online.
Now, all BUSD employees have been offered at least one dose of the vaccine and the district has an agreement with its teachers’ union to bring its elementary students back to the classroom five days per week. Many of Berkeley’s teachers are preparing to head back to their classrooms, excited to meet their students in-person for the first time.
Preparing for a new normal
Jennifer Wendel has spent her free time at Thousand Oaks Elementary preparing her classroom for her fifth graders, holding up a measuring tape and shoving desks around.
“I have to tell you, just getting the appointment gave me a huge relief,” said Wendel, who provides care for her 87-year-old father. Due to social distancing requirements, she won’t be able to welcome her students like she usually does. “I can’t wait to see the kids. But I won’t be able to hug them. That’ll kill me.”
Wendel’s excitement is tempered by her fears about the virus spreading among the students, and about students who opted for distance learning.
“Now that I’m vaccinated, I’m worried about their families and I’m worried about the kids that aren’t going to come back,” said Wendel, who has worked at Thousand Oaks for 21 years. To keep the virus from spreading among students and their families, Wendel is anxiously planning classroom routines.
“I’m not sleeping well at all since they decided we’re going back to school. That’s what’s keeping me up — understanding the protocols,” Wendel said.
Meanwhile, Cody Schmidt, a first-grade teacher at Rosa Parks, has been back in his classroom since March 8, teaching a small group of students who came back to campus in the district’s first phase of reopening. Schmidt felt comfortable teaching in-person before getting the second dose: he’s young with no pre-existing conditions and happens to have one of the biggest classrooms on campus. On March 29, the majority of Schmidt’s first-graders will join the small group back on campus already.
“I’m most excited to see all the kids. It’s one thing to see them on the screen. Being able to see them in person, there’s no doubt that will foster a new kind of connection,” Schmidt said.
Working on a yearbook with little to photograph
A few miles away at Berkeley High, Genevieve Mage has been teaching in-person as well. In addition to managing a yearbook class in-person, she teaches religion to juniors and seniors over Zoom. She is looking forward to seeing more students in the halls, not least for the sake of her yearbook staff, who have not had much to photograph this year.
“We’re struggling to find any way to respectably document this year,” Mage said. “Fifty spreads in the yearbook are sports. What sports could we take pictures of this year?” said Mage, who decided to go easy on her sports editor.
Even while getting vaccinated, Mage had students at the top of her mind. Daniel Kook, a former student who graduated in 2019, filled out her vaccine card at her first and second appointment. Kook was working at the site, which Mage used as an opportunity to catch up with him.
Mage wants more students to go back in-person, but worries about the virus spreading to those living in multi-generational homes and wonders whether the disruption to the older students will be worth it.
“Teachers want to go back to school just as much as the kids do, but not at the expense of safety and not at the expense of student stability,” Mage said. “I’m worried that we are making hasty decisions to expedite in-person learning.”
Matt Laurel would typically spend his afternoon zipping across the Student Learning Center at Berkeley High, fist-bumping every student who crossed his path.
“It’s got this energy and this life that I haven’t experienced in over a year,” said Laurel, who runs the high school’s tutoring program.
He’s been longing to see students in-person: the Virtual Learning Center he created on Zoom hasn’t had quite the same energy. But he knows it’ll be a while before that bustle returns.
“We’re going to have this safe and cautious step-by-step return back. But even the limited experience of sitting at a table with a student, helping them with a college essay, or getting them math help with a tutor who can smile at them from behind a mask will mean the world to them,” said Laurel, who got his first dose of the vaccine on March 3.
To get his appointment, he spotted an early-morning email with slots for educators at the Oakland Coliseum.
“It was like when people try to buy a PS5. You have to click super fast,” he joked. Laurel is honored that California chose to prioritize vaccines for educators. “I feel valued by society, for educators to be one of the first groups of people to get the vaccine,” Laurel said.
‘Teachers aren’t feeling welcome’
While teachers are glad to be vaccinated, they know not everyone in the community agrees that it should have been a precondition for teaching in-person. And the caustic rhetoric of the reopening debate has taken its toll.
“Teachers aren’t feeling welcome in our city,” said one elementary school teacher, breaking down in tears. “Sometimes I think to myself, am I teaching or putting on a show? As soon as I’m off, my face drops.”
When a video of union president Matt Meyer made national news, many teachers took the attack personally. Some teachers who declined to be interviewed for this story did so due to fear of backlash.
“You’d think that being vaccinated would make me feel safe,” said the teacher, who started providing in-person instruction for a small cohort of students in the first week of March. “But I’m feeling unsafe in a new way. I look around and worry about who’s going to film me when I go to work.”
Some say the attitude toward teachers feels markedly different from last year when the community rallied behind teachers fighting for a pay raise. Now, posters reading “Keep Teachers in Berkeley” remain plastered on storefronts around town, but not everyone feels the support.
Some teachers say their enthusiasm for returning has been lost in a conversation that sometimes characterizes them as dragging their feet. “It feels viscerally painful to hear people say that teachers prefer to stay home. We miss our students. We know how harmful remote learning is for so many of our kids and how difficult it is for so many of our families,” said Laurel, who acknowledges that teachers have a range of perspectives on reopening.
Still, others wish they had the choice not to return to the classroom this spring. Concerned about community spread, one teacher is considering taking unpaid leave instead of returning to teach in-person.
“I have a moral objection to participating in the widespread opening. I feel like people are going to get sick from it, even if everybody does the best they can. I hope I’m wrong,” said a teacher who wished to remain anonymous. Parents and teachers alike “should have a choice on how to protect their family.”
In the heated climate, Schmidt says that words of encouragement from families mean all the more to him. “Every message that I get from families goes a long way. I just appreciate the families and staff who keep looking for the silver lining and optimism in hard times.”
In his class, Reed has made it a point to teach students how to voice their opinions respectfully.
“The art of disagreeing and the art of listening are skills that children need, and those are skills that we practice daily.”