Update: COVID-19 outbreak linked to unmasked BHS boys basketball tryouts

This is BUSD’s first COVID-19 outbreak since the start of the pandemic. The city asked the district to pause tryouts for all sports but hybrid learning will continue as normal.

Berkeley High School, March 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin
Berkeley High School, March 2018. Photo: Nancy Rubin

Update April 19, 7:13 p.m. The COVID-19 outbreak at Berkeley High is tied to unmasked boys basketball tryouts, where most students did not wear face coverings while working out at one indoor practice and two outdoor practices. Students tied to the basketball team also reportedly did not wear masks at ‘non-BHS’ indoor workouts the week prior. 

Update April 19, 5:40 p.m. Berkeley High now has three reported cases of COVID-19, all linked to boys basketball team tryouts, which constitutes the first outbreak of the virus at Berkeley Unified schools. The city has asked BUSD to pause all tryouts for sports while it ensures proper protocols are being followed.

Update April 19, 2:18 p.m. Berkeley High now has two reported cases of COVID-19, both linked to boys basketball team tryouts. This story has been updated to include an additional case of COVID-19 that was reported at Sylvia Mendez Elementary, and several people have been asked to quarantine.

This is a developing story. Berkeleyside will provide updates as we learn more.

Three people linked to unmasked practices with the Berkeley High School basketball team tested positive for COVID-19.

The outbreak at BHS began when one person tested positive for the virus on Friday. BUSD was notified of a second positive test at the high school late Sunday night, according to Trish McDermott, a spokesperson for the district. The district became aware of a third positive case on Monday. 

“We confirmed today that masks were not worn by most students as they engaged in rigorous basketball drills at two outdoor practices and one indoor workout last week,” reads a statement to the BUSD community. “We have also learned about non-BHS workouts that involved some BHS basketball players at an indoor gym without masks over the preceding week.”

One individual at Sylvia Mendez Elementary and one individual at Rosa Parks Elementary also tested positive for COVID-19. These cases are unrelated to the basketball team tryouts.

This is the first outbreak of COVID-19 in Berkeley Unified schools since the start of the pandemic in March 2020. Three cases of the coronavirus that are epidemiologically linked and occur within a 14-day period constitutes an outbreak, according to guidelines from the California Department of Public Health.

BUSD has paused all tryouts for sports teams for 48 hours “in order to conduct a thorough review of athletic practices for adherence to COVID-19 safety protocols,” according to the statement. 

So far, 45 people have been asked to quarantine due to potential exposure at Berkeley High. “As a result, we anticipate that more people may test positive,” Chakko said. Thirty-one people have also been asked to quarantine at Sylvia Mendez.

It is safe to attend school in person, Chakko said, “but proper protocols need to be in place.” People should be taking steps to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 such as wearing masks and washing their hands, including during sports.

City officials said that community members can expect to encounter cases of COVID-19 at schools. “We’re still in a pandemic. There will still be cases. The goal of public health is to prevent and minimize outbreaks,” said Chakko said. 

Tryouts for the boys basketball team began April 13. Competitive sports have been operating without any known cases of COVID-19 since Feb. 1, and conditioning for sports teams began over the summer. “Other school sports have occurred and they have been safe,” said Lisa Warhuus, director of Berkeley’s health, housing and community services department, at a virtual town hall held by Mayor Jesse Arreguín on April 19. 

Hybrid learning at the high school and full in-person instruction at Sylvia Mendez will continue as normal. Some students returned to Berkeley High for hybrid learning on April 12. About 10-15 ninth graders per class were invited back for three hours of in-person instruction each week. Some students have been on campus since March 8 for the district’s first phase of reopening.

These are the fourth, fifth, and sixth cases of COVID-19 at Berkeley High this academic year. One individual at Berkeley High tested positive in December and two individuals tested positive in January. There have been 19 cases of COVID-19 in Berkeley schools since March 2020, according to the district’s case dashboard.

McDermott said that the district has been “vigilant” in responding to all its cases of COVID-19, including this case.

Some parents have continued to call for Berkeley High to reopen five days a week, while a small group has called the return to hybrid learning premature. Others prefer to remain in hybrid learning for fear of community spread.

Select groups of students in grades 10-12 will return for hybrid learning on April 19. All high school students will have the option to return to campus for hybrid learning on April 26. 

At Berkeley High, 37% of students have opted for hybrid learning, 25% have chosen distance learning, and 37% have yet to respond to the enrollment survey, according to data shared by Superintendent Brent Stephens during a school board meeting on April 14.

Ally Markovich covers education for Berkeleyside. Twitter: @allymarkovich Email: ally@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: allymarkovich.