Third through Fifth graders head back to physical classes at Emerson Elementary School, April 13, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Students wait in line before entering Emerson Elementary on the morning of April 13. Third, fourth, and fifth graders returned in person to school in more than a year on April 12. Photo: Pete Rosos.

This week, several thousand Berkeley students returned to campuses in person for the first time in months, joining students in transitional kindergarten through second grade. Celebrations settled into a new sense of normalcy as BUSD elementary and middle schools filled with students once again.

On April 12, elementary students of all grades were back in person and middle school students returned in a hybrid model of four hours of in-person instruction a week. A final count indicated that 80% of elementary students returned to school for in-person instruction and 20% remained remote, according to Trish McDermott, a press information officer for BUSD.

Some high school students will return to school for hybrid learning today and on April 26, all high school students will have the option to return for three hours of in-person instruction each week.

Many students, teachers, and parents were overjoyed to see each others’ faces in person. But for others, the joy was tempered with concern. Some families say scheduling hiccups have started distance learning off on the wrong foot. Meanwhile, other parents continue to push for secondary schools to reopen fully.

Two weeks ago, Berkeleyside shadowed first and second-grade students and teachers on their mid-spring first day of school. This week, we followed up with those families to see how it’s been going. We also interviewed families who came back to school for the first time on Monday.

Most elementary students are back in person five days per week

Third through Fifth graders head back to physical classes at Emerson Elementary School, April 13, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
Students wait in line outside Emerson Elementary on April 13. Photo: Pete Rosos.

Myles Nye’s third-grade son Fenton went back to Oxford Elementary on Monday. Inside his lunch box, Fenton carried a note from his dad: “Dear Fenton, we’ve waited a long time for this– almost 400 days. We are so proud of you. We love you. Have a good day at school. Xoxo Daddy.”

When Fenton came home that afternoon, Nye, who serves on Oxford’s PTA, peppered his son with questions about his teachers, lessons, and the safety protocols. Fenton answered, enthusiastically describing the aphids that he and his classmates studied during garden class.

But what Fenton really wanted to talk about was the new version of zombie tag that he and his friends had dreamed up on the playground that they called “drip monster.” Nye was happy to hear about his son playing with classmates. “That is what third graders should be doing at school,” Nye said.

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After a week off for spring break, students in transitional kindergarten through second grade are now entering their second week of in-person instruction. For them, the spark hasn’t worn off yet. Every day that Tia Pelz’s kids come home from school, they tell her “it was perfect.”

For Pelz’s son Theo, a first-grader at Oxford Elementary, going back in person has meant real academic progress for the first time in months. “Zoom school was torture for him,” Pelz said. Her son struggled with confidence and had all but given up on writing. By the end of the first week back in-person, Theo’s teacher Lency Olson texted Pelz a photo of over a page that Theo had written in class. “It gives us so much hope for second grade,” Pelz said

For students who remained in distance learning, the experience has been mixed. On the one hand, the district added an extra hour onto the distance learning schedule so that students would get the same amount of instruction as those physically attending school. And parents’ concerns that students in distance learning would be stuck with substitutes have been mitigated, as all the distance learning teachers are certified instructors. All of the distance learning instructors at Sylvia Mendez, which has a dual-language immersion program, speak English and Spanish.

Distance learning teachers have continued to be creative, providing hands-on opportunities for students where they can. Bonnie Mencher’s daughter Tala, a first-grader, is excited to start a new project about silkworms. Tala’s teacher is delivering silkworms to all her students, so they can watch them grow and learn about their life cycles.

But some families who stayed in distance learning say the program has deteriorated. “Before, distance learning was great for us. My kindergartener learned to read and write on Zoom. It’s pretty incredible,” said Roberto Santiago, the parent of a kindergartener and fourth-grader at Malcolm X elementary. Now, Santiago fears that distance learning could be turning into a “terrible tragedy.”

Scheduling problems and poor communication have plagued distance learning, according to Santiago. His fourth grader’s science class has been canceled until further notice, without any indication about when it will begin again, the case for many distance learning students. And the music class Santiago’s child was assigned conflicted with other classes. (After emailing back and forth, Santiago found out that his fourth-grader could attend a music class during another time slot, but he wishes that option was made clear right away). In a Facebook group for families remaining in distance learning, parents have voiced similar concerns.

Michelle Sinclair, principal of the newly formed distance learning school, acknowledged the scheduling problems at an April 14 school board meeting. Enrichment classes have been slow to get started, Sinclair admitted, but the district plans for all classes to be up and running soon. Students can attend music class at any time that works with their schedule, Sinclair added.

For now, intervention services in math and reading have been on pause, since tutors were pulled away to teach core classes. That’s the case for students learning in-person and online, but Santiago said those tutoring services were essential for his kids’ success in distance learning. “The tutoring services really worked. Now, there’s potential for my kid to backslide in math,” Santiago said.

Hybrid learning starts for middle school

Third through Fifth graders head back to physical classes at Emerson Elementary School, April 13, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
A staff member checks students in before they head inside Emerson Elementary on April 13. Photo: Pete Rosos.

On April 12, middle school students began coming back to campuses for two hours of instruction twice per week. The in-person learning consists of advisory, academic support, and academic enrichment to supplement distance learning.

Joanna Petrone, a sixth-grade teacher at Longfellow Middle School, met many of her students for the first time on Monday. “This was their first day of middle school, so the first day had some painful shyness. They were super nervous,” Petrone said. Petrone has been teaching a small group of students in person since March 12 as part of the district’s Phase 1 reopening process.

Petrone planned activities for the students to get to know one another and put in extra effort to make them feel comfortable. Students did a scavenger hunt in garden class on Monday and on Tuesday and made salads in their cooking class. By Tuesday afternoon, students who had been strangers were laughing as if they had been friends all year, she said.

About half of Petrone’s students are coming for the in-person portion of the day, meaning class sizes of about 10 to 15 students. Berkeley Unified has not released the latest data about middle school student enrollment.

Petrone is careful to make sure students who are not returning don’t feel left out or miss important academic curriculum. She is planning enrichment activities, including perhaps a reader’s theater with Greek mythology for the afternoon.

Mark Cooper’s sixth-grade daughter Josephine stepped inside her classroom at Willard Middle School for the first time on Monday afternoon. She was overjoyed to meet her teachers and some classmates, Cooper said.

But on Tuesday, her second in-person day that week, Josephine “found herself depressed as it set in that her next in-person opportunity wouldn’t be for another five days,” Cooper wrote in an email.

Though Cooper is glad to see some in-person learning for his daughter, he wishes she could get more. “I really hope that they expand the four hours a week schedule to something more substantial,” Cooper wrote. With social distancing requirements down to three feet, Cooper doesn’t see why students could not get more time on campus.

BUSD said that it hopes to expand some in-person learning opportunities for middle school students beginning on May 3.

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,...