The empty entrance to Willard Middle School. Students will soon be returning in person a few hours per week.  Photo: Pete Rosos
The empty entrance to Willard Middle School. Students will soon be returning in person a few hours per week.  Photo: Pete Rosos

Middle and high school students will soon be returning to school in person for a few hours a week under two tentative agreements reached Tuesday, March 30, between the Berkeley Unified School District and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers.

The hybrid plan offers two hours of in-person instruction twice a week for middle school students and 90 minutes of in-person instruction twice a week for high school students. Students will continue to receive remote instruction in the mornings.

The teachers union will vote to ratify the agreements later this week.

Hybrid learning will begin April 12 for middle school students and some high school students, but all high schoolers will not be welcome on campus until April 26. Select ninth graders, about 10-15  students per class, will be offered the chance to return to school April 12. Select students in 10th, 11th, and 12th grade will be able to return in-person April 19. Teachers will offer slots to students based on factors like academic need and attendance.

This phased reopening plan pushes back the starting date for hybrid learning for all high school students by one week but aligns with the district’s term schedule. “Because April 19 is finals week and the end of Term 7 we are focusing our on-campus instruction on students who need extra support to finish Term 7 strong,” Brent Stephens wrote in an email to students and parents.

In-person classes will offer supplemental enrichment to complement distance learning. At the middle school level, the afternoon option will emphasize socio-emotional learning and will consist of advisory, academic support, and academic enrichment lessons, said Chris Albek, interim principal at Willard Middle School and Director of TK-8 Schools Debbie Dean at a town hall on March 29 about reopening secondary schools. The district hopes to make it possible for middle school students to attend classes in the afternoons on more days each week, beginning on May 3.

At the high school level, the in-person curriculum will be designed by individual teachers. As at middle schools, the afternoon classes are intended to support and deepen students’ understanding of the morning’s distance learning curriculum, Stephens said at the town hall. Most students will be able to take two classes in-person, though some may be offered a third class depending on schedule alignment.

Martin Luther King J.r Middle School. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Middle and high school students who do not return to campus in-person will not receive any live instruction during the afternoon. Instead, they will be assigned asynchronous workup to 30 minutes per class for middle school students and 20 minutes per class for high school students.

The schedule for hybrid learning is as follows: Middle school students have distance learning from 9 to 11:50 a.m. and in-person learning twice per week from 1 to 3 p.m on Monday and Tuesday or Thursday and Friday. High school students have a similar schedule, but distance learning runs from 8:55 a.m.-12:15 p.m. and in-person classes go from 2-3:30 p.m.

At the urging of high school teachers, Wednesdays, called “equity days” at Berkeley High, will remain reserved for support classes with struggling students. Middle school students will only attend advisory on Wednesdays.

Challenges to opening five days a week

For those pushing for secondary schools to reopen for in-person instruction five days per week, the plan offers disappointingly little in-person instructional time.

“It’s a big disappointment to many in this community that this is what we receive as a hybrid learning schedule after all that this community has been through and at the current status of the pandemic and the direction from health authorities nationwide,” said Mati Teiblum during a question and answer session at the town hall. Teiblum said the plan offers such limited instructional time that it is an “insult” to call it a hybrid model.

At the town hall, Stephens gave a number of reasons why secondary schools cannot open five days a week in the way that elementary schools did. For one, it is more challenging to implement a cohort model for older students, who typically travel to many classes throughout the day. Scheduling remains an issue, as do larger class sizes. (This schedule was designed with students maintaining four to six feet of distance, not three feet).

As of March 30, 83% of middle school students were enrolled in hybrid learning and 17% were enrolled in distance learning, according to data presented at the town hall. The district has not shared how many middle school families have yet to complete the enrollment form.

“We hope that we’re finding that balance between both the students who want to come to campus and those who for many reasons will not be able to,” Stephens said at the town hall, though he recognizes that many families feel discouraged.

Pledge to reopen all schools full-time in the fall

On March 25, in an effort to reassure families, Stephens and the Berkeley Unified School Board pledged to reopen all schools fully in the fall by returning to labor agreements that existed prior to the start of the pandemic.

“We hope to make clear tonight the board’s expectation and direction that we will be open for normal business in the fall of 2021, all grades, preschool to 12, full-day, five days a week, in-person,” said School Board President Ty Alper during a March 25 school board meeting. Alper hoped the announcement would provide “welcome certainty for families.”

Following the meeting, Stephens and Alper penned a letter to the community reiterating the board’s commitment to a full reopening in the fall.

As for the spring, the district has asked high school students to complete an enrollment form selecting hybrid learning or distance learning by the end of the day Sunday, April 4. Middle school families have already submitted enrollment forms for their students.

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,...