Seventy-nine percent of Berkeley’s elementary students will be back to school in-person and 18.5% will be learning remotely, according to the district. Photo, taken on Aug. 20, 2020, by Pete Rosos
Seventy-nine percent of Berkeley’s elementary students will be back to school in-person and 18.5% will be learning remotely, according to the district. Photo, taken on Aug. 20, 2020, by Pete Rosos

When elementary schools open their doors again, the majority of Berkeley Unified students will go back in-person, according to much-anticipated data released by the school district. The data shows that a majority of students of all races will be learning in-person, but enrollment does vary based on race, ethnicity, and income.

Seventy-nine percent of elementary students will be back in-person and 18.5% will be learning remotely, according to district data released on March 23. Fewer than 3% of students have not yet been enrolled in distance or in-person learning.

Juan Estrada’s second-grade son Angel can’t wait to go back with most of his classmates, he told Berkeleyside. Angel currently attends Ed Camp, a small, district-run program that has been allowing 19 students to call into Zoom classes from classrooms monitored by adults since Nov. 8. After Estrada told his son the news, Angel immediately found his new room at Rosa Parks and excitedly peered in through the windows.

Estrada said he is not worried about sending his kids back. “I know for a fact that he’s going to be safe at school and he’s going to learn more,” he said.

While most will be returning in-person, at least 18.5% of elementary students will remain remote. The decision was a personal one that took into account, among other factors, experiences with COVID-19 in the past year. But for families who have children or other loved ones with underlying health conditions, it was not a decision at all.

“For a lot of our families, it’s not a choice. It’s not a choice if a child has cystic fibrosis. It’s not a choice if your child is immunocompromised from surviving leukemia,” Cheryl Theis, a parent of a ninth-grader at Berkeley High and an advocate with Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, said during a town hall last Wednesday on special education.

Theis, who plans for her ninth-grader to remain in distance learning for the remainder of the school year, has preexisting conditions that make her vulnerable to the virus.

“My kid coming back and getting COVID, he might be fine, might not have a single symptom, but I could lose my life and then he wouldn’t have me as a mom anymore,” Theis said at the town hall, adding that she is excited for families who can send students back in-person.

While a majority of elementary students of every racial or ethnic group will return to school in-person, there are differences in enrollment based on race, ethnicity and income. White families are the most “likely to choose in-person learning, and Black families, English learners, and socio-economically disadvantaged less likely to return or undecided,” Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in an email to the school community on March 19.

At least 84% of white elementary students will go back in-person, compared to at least  71% of Latinx students and 59% of Black students. At least 63% of socio-economically disadvantaged students will return to in-person learning, as of data released on March 19.

The data reflects trends in national polls that show that readiness to return to in-person learning varies by race, ethnicity and income. In nearby Oakland Unified, a recent survey showed similar differences based on race, though a smaller share of families, as well as a smaller share of minority families, opted for in-person learning overall. In Oakland, 52% of Black families, 48% of Latino families, and 44%  of Asian families selected in-person learning, compared to 76% of white families.

Families of Black and socio-economically disadvantaged students had higher non-response rates in Berkeley than other groups, so overall enrollment numbers for these groups are subject to change as more parents complete the form. (Berkeleyside will update this story when the district releases more recent demographic data.)

Abby Ejigu opted to send her two elementary-aged kids back to school because she trusts the precautions the district is taking will protect her and her family. Ejigu, a Black mother of three mixed-race children, including two who attend Rosa Parks, needed full confidence to make that choice: after a battle with cancer, she has been in remission for one year but is still vulnerable to illness.

“I have faith in how diligent the district has been,” Ejigu said. “I do have full trust in the systems that are put in place, that all of the protocols will be followed.”

Still, Ejigu understands why some families of color would not send their students back in-person. “I do believe from a health standpoint that our Black and Latinx populations have been underserved — more than that, even neglected and abused— during the pandemic. Because of that, it may be more challenging for our populations of people of color to trust in these systems and I believe these statistics show it.”

“We’ve lost a lot of people this year. I don’t want anyone to ever have to experience a Zoom funeral.” — Cielo Rios

Cielo Rios, the mother of a second-grader at Emerson Elementary, is one of the parents who enrolled her child in distance learning. Rios, whose extended family includes many essential workers in Southern California, knows first-hand the damage that COVID-19 can reap.

Deciding whether to enroll her child was emotional for Rios, who cried when she received the enrollment form. “I’m so traumatized by everything that’s happened,” she said. “I want people to understand what’s happened to families this year because they’re not paying attention. There’s this perpetual looming threat. We’ve lost a lot of people this year. I don’t want anyone to ever have to experience a Zoom funeral.”

Rios felt like she didn’t have enough information and did not initially complete the form. Then, without being contacted by the district, Rios received an email that her daughter would be enrolled in in-person learning, bringing another wave of anxiety. “I was rolled over,” she said. Rios ultimately selected distance learning for her child.

Ejigu wishes everyone in the community could approach the issue from a place of understanding, respecting the choices of all families.

“I’m convinced that Berkeley Unified has done its job in agreeing that we can be back in-person when it’s safe to do so,” she said. “And for some folks, it’s still not safe, and that’s perfectly fine, too.”

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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,...