An investigation by Berkeleyside has revealed the school district made several blunders while it was planning school reopenings. Credit: Pete Rosos

In February, with pressure mounting for students to return to their classrooms, Berkeley Unified School District told the public that schools were on track to reopen, its website indicating that the state had approved its reopening plan.

But that was not true. Not only was the plan not approved, but Berkeley public health officials had told BUSD this. Moreover, the school district had submitted a reopening plan to the wrong health department, one that had no jurisdiction over the district. And the Berkeley Public Health Division, which has authority over the district, deemed the reopening plan insufficient.

BUSD scrambled to write a more detailed plan and shared a draft with the city. Local public health officials were still unimpressed.

“Why would anybody submit this?” Lisa Warhuus, director of Berkeley’s Health, Housing and Community Services Department, told Berkeleyside. “This is embarrassing. The plan was the cart before the horse.”

An investigation by Berkeleyside has revealed several missteps by the school district. When Berkeleyside asked about the subpar plans and why they were submitted to the wrong health department, BUSD initially deflected the question and instead provided answers that appeared to contradict information from other departments. This sent Berkeleyside on a hunt to find out what really happened. In response to a Public Records Act request by Berkeleyside, the district omitted key materials that would have revealed the problems.

Meanwhile, Berkeley parents had been growing increasingly vocal, criticizing the district for its lack of transparency and accusing district leaders of betraying their trust. Parents wanted to know why the district unexpectedly opened elementary schools five days a week and why middle and high schools couldn’t reopen fully. A group of about 60 parents filed their own PRA request in a search of answers.

“Why would anybody submit this? This is embarrassing. The plan was the cart before the horse.” — Lisa Warhuus

“The district messed up on several possible grounds, in leadership and in operation,” said Mara Kolesas, a leader from BUSD Parents, a group pushing for the return to five full days of instruction for all grades. Though Kolesas acknowledges the challenges the district faced in reopening, she said it will take a long time to rebuild the community’s trust. “It’s incredibly disappointing that they have not acknowledged responsibility and have been patting themselves on the back.”

Earlier this year, BUSD made a series of announcements about reopening schools. On Feb. 17, the district announced tentative plans to reopen schools in a hybrid model, only to change course on March 8 and announce that elementary schools would open five days per week. Finally, on March 29, elementary schools opened for students in transitional kindergarten through second grade, and on April 12, students in third through fifth grade returned to classrooms. Middle school students returned to campus a few hours a week on April 12, and all high school students will be able to return for hybrid learning on April 26.

Behind the scenes is the confusing story of BUSD’s reopening plan, replete with bureaucratic blunders and obfuscations. It appears that BUSD did not understand the process for getting its reopening plans approved, despite the Berkeley public health department’s attempts to explain the process. And BUSD was not transparent about the status of its reopening plans. As a result of this investigation, Berkeleyside also learned about the tension that flared in February between the district and the city.

Superintendent Brent Stephens, however, insists Berkeley Unified has done nothing wrong.

The mistakes that Berkeleyside discovered ultimately had no bearing on the district’s reopening timeline. While BUSD was submitting its reopening plans, it was still in the middle of negotiations with its labor unions and had agreed to wait until teachers and staff were fully vaccinated before reopening schools or in-person instruction. The district produced a plan for a March 31 reopening.

What happened with BUSD’s reopening plans?

Credit: Berkeleyside

For most of February, Berkeley Unified listed on its website that it had met state criteria for reopening, but it had not because Berkeley’s health department, which has jurisdiction over the district, had not approved a plan. BUSD had not even officially submitted a plan to the department.

Earlier, on Jan. 5, the district submitted a plan to Alameda County’s Office of Education that provided no path forward to reopening. The plan offered no dates for return to in-person learning, nor did it provide detailed COVID-19 mitigation procedures or a plan for hybrid learning. At the time, COVID-19 case rates were high, schools in purple tier counties were ineligible to reopen, and the district was negotiating with its labor unions. Nevertheless, Alameda County approved Berkeley’s reopening plan Jan. 8.

Then, on Feb. 1, BUSD erroneously submitted a COVID-19 Safety Plan (CSP) to the Alameda County Public Health Department. By this time, California guidelines had changed and BUSD only needed to submit its plans to the city. Officials in the Berkeley health department had been expecting BUSD’s reopening plan, but it never came. On Feb. 3, Alameda County health staff notified BUSD and Berkeley officials of the erroneous submission. Berkeley’s health department notified the state of the mistake and contacted BUSD about it, as well.

On Feb. 4, Deputy Berkeley Public Health Officer Liza Ortiz sent an email to Superintendent Stephens indicating that BUSD could not reopen its elementary schools because the district did not have a reopening plan approved by the city.

“They have not submitted an appropriate plan for any reopening under the schools guidance,” Ortiz wrote in an email to California’s Department of Public Health on Feb. 5. “We have discussed this with them at length and are ready to provide robust support so they can achieve this.”

Ortiz repeatedly told the district from Feb. 4 to Feb. 22 that the plan it submitted to the county was “insufficient.”

“What they submitted was not a serious plan,” said Warhuus, who described the submission as a “pro forma” move by the district to “show they had skin in the game.”

One problem with BUSD’s plan was that it outlined safety measures but did not explain how it would achieve them. “(S)chools and districts cannot simply state they are implementing a prevention measure, but also specifically must describe how that safety measure is being implemented,” Ortiz wrote in an email to Stephens on Feb. 4.

The BUSD schools reopening plans were originally submitted to the wrong department. Credit: Pete Rosos

BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott said that the district submitted this plan to the wrong department out of confusion. “BUSD is under the jurisdiction of Berkeley Public Health but also the Alameda County Office of Education, so in some instances, and unlike other districts in the county, the lines blur for us,” explained McDermott in an email to Berkeleyside on Feb. 26.

Stephens said he does not see the submission as a mistake. “It was an error of addition. At that point, we wanted to be sure that every possible box was checked and nothing would get in the way of reopening,” he said.

McDermott said that the district did not expect to have to submit a detailed reopening plan, merely a reopening “checklist” and an employee safety plan. Berkeley’s health department was looking for “a detailed Reopening Plan as part of the CSP submission,” McDermott wrote in her email, which the district “did not have … ready to submit” in early February.

For the detailed reopening plan, the city had asked the district to include not only a list of safety measures, but how it would implement them. For example, the district should not only say it would employ one-way hallways, but explain how it would achieve that on a school-by-school basis. “We always promoted reopening, but we promoted safe reopening,” Warhuus said.

Berkeley’s requirements were no more stringent than the state’s, said Warhuus, since they mirror California’s guidelines for reopening. However, Alameda County “may not have had the bandwidth to look at the actual plans” the way Berkeley public health staff did, Warhuus said.

On Feb. 18, BUSD finally shared a draft of its reopening plan with the city’s health department. It still fell short of the department’s expectations, according to Warhuus.

“We expected a plan to allow them to reopen, but they couldn’t give us a plan until they got a negotiated agreement,” Warhuus told Berkeleyside. “What they perhaps tried to do was just give us something and didn’t put as much into it because they didn’t know what their plan would be.”

Health officials requested more details on virtually every part of the plan, especially how the district would mitigate the spread of COVID-19. For example, BUSD did not explain how it would control the flow of traffic in hallways, how students would safely exit or enter buildings, or how it would limit large gatherings inside the school. “We need more detail. How exactly will the 3,000 BHS students be divided so they can enter and exit the school safely?” health officials asked in one comment.

BUSD said it could not provide a fully fleshed-out plan because it was still in negotiations with its labor unions. When asked if Berkeley’s health department rejected the plan, Superintendent Stephens demurred. “We had an offer from folks in the public health department to provide comments on that plan. This struck us as a good idea,” he said. “We never understood it to be rejected.”

Finally, throughout February, BUSD misunderstood the process by which its reopening plans would be approved, despite the city’s repeated attempts to explain it. 

“We understood at that point that we would be submitting to both health jurisdictions, the city and the state, and that the state’s approval had been a passive one,” Stephens said. “In the early days of this brand new school reopening system, it wasn’t entirely clear how all of this was going to work.”

The investigation also brought to light a lack of clarity within BUSD about reopening, at a time when some say the community’s trust in the district was at an all-time low.

Within the draft plan, BUSD inaccurately described the process for getting the plan approved. “This information is inaccurate on many fronts,” health officials wrote. In the draft, BUSD wrote that the plan it submitted to the state had been approved since the district “was not notified of any deficiencies” by the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). But that was not true. Health officials corrected BUSD: “Note that the approval relies on CoB and CDPH so the BUSD plan has not yet been approved.”

During most of February, Berkeley Unified indicated on its website that it was eligible to reopen because its plan had been approved by the state, even though it had not been. During this time, Berkeley’s public health department made several attempts to get BUSD to correct the inaccurate information it was communicating to the public.

“BUSD has been posting on their website that their CSP is approved by CDPH. We have been very clear with them that their plan is not considered sufficient by our department,” Ortiz wrote in an email to Jeanine Barbato, a COVID-19 schools coordinator with the California Department of Public Health on Feb. 19. Three days later, Ortiz wrote: “We have repeatedly communicated this to BUSD, and they have yet to make any correction to their website, nor have they communicated the correct information in another manner.”

The delay in updating the website was a result of the “flurry” of other necessary actions the district was taking at the time to reopen schools, Stephens said.

Finally, on Feb. 22, BUSD’s press officer asked a state employee to correct the inaccurate information, and it updated its own website.

BUSD provided inaccurate, incomplete information to Berkeleyside

BUSD parent protest
A protester grabs a sign asking BUSD to allow students back to physical classes, Jan. 13, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

After learning that BUSD had submitted its reopening plan to the wrong agency in late February, Berkeleyside filed a public records request to get details about the plan. But the district was less than forthcoming about its actions.

BUSD provided incomplete information about the status of its reopening plans to Berkeleyside. The district’s press officer initially denied that BUSD had submitted any reopening plans after Jan. 5. In a phone interview, Stephens omitted information about the city’s finding that its February reopening plan was insufficient. Finally, the district failed to respond completely to Berkeleyside’s PRA request for this information.

On Feb. 25, Berkeleyside asked McDermott via phone whether Berkeley Unified had submitted a plan to Alameda County. She denied that BUSD had submitted a plan to the county.

That same day, Berkeleyside received an email from Alameda County Public Health that indicated otherwise: “Please find attached the link for the Berkeley Unified School District re-opening plan submitted in error to the Alameda County Public Health Department” on Feb. 1, wrote Kabir Hypolite, special projects manager for the county.

When asked again for a more recent plan, McDermott provided the plan that had been submitted to Alameda County on Jan. 5, even though Berkeleyside had already obtained the Feb. 1 plan. In a follow-up email, McDermott implied that she was unclear on what Berkeleyside meant when we asked for the most recent plan. “It might be helpful to flush [sic] out the use of the word “plan” in numerous contexts,” McDermott wrote, explaining that the COVID-19 Safety Plan submitted to the county included a checklist and employee safety document, but not the more detailed reopening plan the district was working on.

“I categorically reject the idea that anything we did along the way was dishonest.” — Brent Stephens

On Feb. 25 and 26, McDermott emphasized that BUSD had not submitted a plan to the city of Berkeley, despite email communications obtained by Berkeleyside showing that the city’s health department had reviewed the plan and found it insufficient.

Neither McDermott nor Stephens told Berkeleyside that Berkeley’s health department did not approve the plan it had completed in early February.

Furthermore, BUSD did not turn over all of the public records Berkeleyside requested, omitting emails pertinent to the reopening plans as well as relevant feedback from public health staff.

While the district did not provide these records, other agencies did. In response to Berkeleyside’s Public Records Act request, the city’s health department shared its comments on the district’s draft plan. And the state released its communications with city public health staff, which included emails between city health officials and district staff.

Stephens insists that the district was forthright. “I categorically reject the idea that anything we did along the way was dishonest,” Stephens said, emphasizing the “sheer complexity” of the “intense administrative work” in February. He also said the district responded to the PRA using the “same standards that are applied to all PRAs.”

Missteps caused tension, but no reopening delays

Berkeleyside’s investigation revealed tension between the district and the city’s health department over reopening and a lack of transparency on the district’s part. Credit: Pete Rosos

In the end, BUSD was never required to submit a reopening plan to Berkeley’s health department. Once the city moved from the purple tier, the most restrictive, to the red tier in March, the district no longer needed the city’s approval.

BUSD posted the reopening plan on its website March 18, updating the plan April 2 with minor changes suggested by Berkeley’s health department. While the city no longer needed to approve the plan, public health officials indicated that they took no issue with the final plan.

The district ultimately provided a plan to reopen its schools safely. Given that the district was still negotiating with its teachers’ union and that it had partnered with the city to get its employees vaccinated, the process of producing a sufficient reopening plan did not delay reopening.

“Did we seek out guidance from our local public health officials? Yes. Did seeking that guidance delay by even one day the reopening of our schools? Absolutely not,” said School Board President Ty Alper.

However, because BUSD was not forthcoming about the status of its reopening plans, Berkeleyside conducted its own investigation. The result revealed tension between the school district and Berkeley public health department over reopening and a lack of transparency on the district’s part.

In February email communications and in comments on the Feb. 18 draft plan, the health department’s frustration at the pace of reopening is clear. “We’ve encouraged and requested and suggested that they’ve reopened, and they were stalled in their negotiations,” Warhuus told Berkeleyside.

Stephens denies any tension between the city and the district. “I’ve known the tenor of these conversations to be solutions-oriented,” he said.

Berkeley’s health department has put public pressure on BUSD to reopen. Since October, the department has made repeated statements that it is safe to reopen elementary and secondary schools, but the timing of one such statement appears to directly rebuke the school district.

“With science and data showing that it is safe for all grades of public and private schools to open for in-person instruction, Berkeley Public Health urges schools to open as soon as possible,” Berkeley public health staff wrote in a statement March 9.

The March 9 statement was published one day after BUSD announced it would reopen elementary schools five days per week but before it confirmed plans March 31 for a hybrid model for middle and high school students.

By April, however, the city and the district had “worked through” what Warhuus described as tension and confusion. “We are making an intentional effort to be in good communication,” she said.

Still, the investigation also brought to light a lack of clarity within BUSD about reopening, at a time when some say the community’s trust in the district was at an all-time low. 

Stephens says he remains “committed to continuing to stay in dialogue through town halls and trying to be as transparent as we can in our communications.”

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,...