Delta variant looms as Berkeley students head back to school

What you need to know about mask mandates, quarantines, social distancing, remote learning and more in Berkeley.

The first day back to school for BUSD Oxford elementary school after over a year of lockdown resulting from the COVID 19 pandemic, March 29, 2021 Photo: Pete Rosos
A student at Oxford Elementary checks in before entering school during the COVID-19 pandemic. File photo: Pete Rosos

Update, Aug. 12, 1 p.m. The Berkeley school board said Wednesday night that it would implement mandatory vaccine-or-test rules for BUSD staff about six weeks ahead of state requirements. The board also will not require students to get tested for COVID-19, but is considering making optional surveillance testing available as frequently as twice as a week. The article has been updated throughout.

Update, Aug. 11, noon Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that all California public school employees will be required to be vaccinated or tested weekly

Original post, Aug. 10 Berkeley students will head back to class Monday, the first day since March 2020 that all schools will be open full time, five days a week. But rising COVID-19 infection counts in Alameda County and risks posed by the hyper-transmissible delta variant have tempered celebration.

Last year, the school district was “caught in between warring factions,” said Jessica Stiles, the parent of a fourth and eighth grader in Berkeley. Some pushed for schools to reopen sooner, while others were more hesitant, advocating for a more robust distance learning option. Last spring, 80% of elementary students returned in person, while 72% of middle schoolers and 46% of high school students attended school a few hours a week in the hybrid model. 


Scroll down to see a rundown of safety measures and remote learning options

The conflict is one that Stiles, and many others, hoped was in the past. California planned for schools to fully reopen this fall and throughout the spring, Berkeley’s school board repeatedly stated its intention to open five days a week.

Berkeley Unified’s safety plan includes some of the same mitigation measures as last year, such as universal masking, but other restrictions are relaxed. Modified quarantines mean that vaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 while wearing a mask no longer have to quarantine, and unvaccinated students can opt for a shortened quarantine accompanied by testing. And the hotly debated social distancing requirement is no longer in effect other than during lunch. 

Many health officials continue to say that returning to school bears little risk, citing low hospitalization rates for children.

“Parents should be confident that their kids can attend school safely,” said Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of UCSF’s emergency department who joined the Open Schools movement last year.

In Berkeley, 75% of residents are fully vaccinated, including 85% of those between the ages of 12 and 17, according to data from the City of Berkeley.

But a resurgence of COVID-19 has some worried about returning to campus, especially for students younger than 12 who are not vaccinated. 

On Aug. 5, the president of the American Academy of Pediatrics penned a letter urging the FDA to quickly approve a COVID-19 vaccine for kids under 12. “[T]he Delta variant has created a new and pressing risk to children and adolescents across this country, as it has also done for unvaccinated adults,” Dr. Lee Savio Beers wrote in the letter. The vaccine could be approved for children between ages 5 and 12 this fall.

“I want to go back and see my school friends but I don’t feel like it would be safe to do that,” said Lily, a fourth grader at Oxford Elementary. “If we go back, I feel like kids might start getting COVID and everything would have to shut down and we wouldn’t be able to move forward.” 

As of press time, the district had not shared the number of students who have enrolled in independent study, the new statewide name for distance learning. But spokesperson Trish McDermott said that the district expects “significantly fewer” students enrolled in independent study compared with distance learning last spring.

Stiles, who is planning for her eighth grader to go back to school in person but is enrolling her fourth grader in independent study, said she’s skeptical that the guidelines reflect the latest COVID-19 conditions. 

“I think this virus is evolving faster than our public health messaging and measures can keep up with,” she said. 

Modified safety measures

With the first day of class less than a week away, here’s what you can expect from back-to-school in Berkeley: 

Universal masking: All students will be required to wear masks, both indoors and out. That’s a departure from California Department of Public Health guidelines, which don’t require kids to wear masks outside. Wearing masks outside means fewer students will have to quarantine in the case of a COVID-19 exposure, Superintendent Brent Stephens said at a town hall on COVID-19 safety Monday night.

Quarantining: There will be less quarantining this year. If a student is exposed to someone with COVID-19 while they were wearing masks, they don’t have to quarantine, regardless of vaccination status, as long as they don’t have symptoms. (Unvaccinated students exposed to COVID-19 have to take two tests a week for 10 days and won’t be able to participate in extracurricular activities.) An unvaccinated, asymptomatic student who was not wearing a mask when exposed will need to complete a shortened quarantine that can end after they receive a negative COVID-19 test result. 

There will be no virtual instruction for students who are quarantining. Teachers will provide assignments for students to work on independently that align with the class’s curriculum. 

No more social distancing requirements: Students are no longer required to socially distance from one another, though teachers will ask students to keep their distance when they can, especially when eating lunch. Students will eat lunch outside. When that’s not possible, students will eat indoors in larger rooms. 

A new vaccine-or-test mandate for staff: Berkeley schools will require staff to be vaccinated or submit to mandated weekly testing. The plan will be implemented as soon as Sep. 3. (Mayor Jesse Arreguín also announced universal vaccinations, or testing, for all city employees Aug. 11.)

Student testing: Students can now receive regular testing on campus free-of-charge without providing insurance information. Surveillance testing will be offered every other week as of now, but the school board said at its meeting Aug. 11 that legal reasons prevented it from requiring student testing.

Improved air filtration systems: The district has installed MERV 17 HEPA air purifiers in every classroom and office. Windows will be open, except on smoky days, when the district will rely on the air filters. 

Limited remote learning

The choices for Berkeley Unified families who want to keep their children home has changed, with last year’s distance learning being replaced by a variety of independent options.

Two home school programs — Assisted Home School for students in grades K-8 and what’s called Berkeley Independent Study for students in 9-12 — provide parents with some coaching and resources from the district but require them to devote at least 25 hours a week to their child’s education. These programs both precede the pandemic.

New this year, parents of students in kindergarten through fifth grade can enroll their kids in a Virtual Academy, which offers a few hours of daily live instruction, group meetings, and asynchronous work time.

These three independent study options offered this fall provide less live instruction than last year’s distance learning, which Superintendent Brent Stephens says is a product of Senate Bill 130, a state law that prioritizes in-person instruction.

The decision to enroll a student in any of Berkeley Unified’s independent study programs is not binding — parents can switch their student back and forth as they desire — but the district cannot promise that a spot in the child’s home school will be reserved, a lack of certainty which has left some parents frustrated.

“I would like to see, first and foremost, a guarantee that any kid that doesn’t go in person to school, will get back into that class, their designated class, as soon as they’re ready,” said Carrie Rosenbaum, a parent at Oxford Elementary. At this point, Rosenbaum is planning to send her daughter to school in person because she knows the sense of community matters, but feels it’s unsafe. “Why is it that we’re all just launching headlong into opening schools in the midst of an ongoing pandemic that if anything is more serious?” Rosenbaum asked.

Come Wednesday night’s school board meeting, some of these rules are subject to change.

“It’s stressful. School starts on Monday and we don’t know what’s happening,” Stiles said.

Read Berkeley Unified’s COVID-19 entire safety plan and tune into Wednesday’s school board meeting at 7 p.m.

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