Berkeley High School students arrive on campus on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Berkeley High School students arrive on campus on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Berkeley High principal Juan Raygoza greeted throngs of students as they entered the gates of the school, reminding a few to pull their masks up over their noses.

For many of the approximately 3,000 high school students who walked or biked into the courtyard, it was their first time stepping foot on campus since schools shut due to coronavirus in March 2020.

“It’s been 18 months of trauma, and we’ve been processing that trauma, for the most part, on our own. To be able to come back together as a community and process that with each other is going to be helpful,” said Raygoza, in between welcoming students.

Most of Berkeley Unified’s students returned to campuses on Monday morning, a celebratory culmination of a year-long conflict over distance learning. Within the last year, parents twice threatened to sue the district for not bringing students back to the classroom soon enough, while others argued that their students who were still learning remotely were being left behind.

All of the district’s schools, from elementary schools to the high school, are now open for full, in-person instruction. In the Berkeley High courtyard, students donning carefully curated first-day-of-school outfits shared reactions to what would otherwise have been a normal first day of school.

“It’s weird to see all these people I haven’t seen in a long time,” Sofia Belo, a ninth grader, tells her friends, who nod in agreement. “It was just me and my parents, and every once in a while, a friend. And now, it’s everybody.”

The day passed in a typical flurry of introductions and temperature checks, teachers asking students how they were feeling. “Tired,” the teenagers replied, the first-day-of-school excitement wearing off.

But fears over surging cases, mostly among the unvaccinated, and the increased risks posed by the delta variant threaten what many hoped would finally be a school year unmarred by COVID-19.

A group of Berkeley High School students compare class schedules before school begins on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“How could we not be worried? All of us are tracking closely what’s happening with the delta variant,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said.

The district will require its teachers and staff to get vaccinated or tested regularly, a policy it plans to implement as soon as Sep. 3. Students are to wear masks, indoors and out, and the district is offering on-site regular testing to students, free-of-charge, no proof of insurance required. Per California Department of Public Health Guidelines, the district will implement targeted quarantine policies when individuals test positive for COVID-19, which makes it unlikely that entire classes will have to quarantine.

Eighty-five percent of Berkeley residents between 12 and 17 years old are fully vaccinated, a significantly higher rate than in the rest of Alameda County, where 56% of youth are vaccinated. Still, students under 12 are not eligible for the vaccine. The risk of children being hospitalized with COVID-19 is relatively low compared to adults, and there are currently no children hospitalized with the virus in San Francisco hospitals.

Nevertheless, Stephens called it a “first day of school like no other.” “It’s been a long time since we’ve welcomed the entire community back to campus,” he said.

Washington Elementary School 1st grade teacher Ms. Ingley instructs students on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Families keeping their children home can enroll in Independent Study, which offers less live instruction than last year’s distance learning program. The district has not shared enrollment numbers, but administors expect far fewer students in the remote option. Washington Elementary’s principal Katia Hazen said the school’s classrooms appear about as full as usual.

After a year of upheaval, students and teachers settled into familiar roles, the day remarkable in its normalcy. Across the street from Berkeley High at Washington Elementary, students were singing their names in Ashleigh Talbott’s kindergarten class, practicing their multiplication tables in Ms. Bail’s fourth-grade room, and drawing pictures with partners to represent the school’s policies for positive behavior in Marie-Eve Thomaes’ first-grade class.

“This is how school is supposed to be,” said Thomaes, who has been teaching for over 20 years and is relieved to be back in her classroom.

Washington Elementary School kindergarten teacher Ashleigh Talbott plays a getting-to-know-you game with students on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

At Longfellow Middle School, teachers and staff tried to reassure students facing first-day anxiety. “I want to go back home,” complained a student clutching her printed schedule to her chest and running to class just as the first period bell rang.

“It’s a big deal to be in middle school,” Rosia Keren told a group of sixth graders gathered in a circle on the blacktop. “Especially because you haven’t been to school in a year and a half. That’s 10% of your life,” Keren said.

“These teachers are going to 100% take care of you,” Longfellow Principal Paco Furlan assured students. “They’re going to make sure that you know everything that’s happening here at Longfellow. So if you have any worries about that, don’t worry.”

But even parents who are excited to see their children back in school can’t help but worry about their safety.

Students walk the hallways of Berkeley High School on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Angela Scott, whose daughter attends Berkeley High and has a respiratory illness, walked the halls in the morning. To her daughter’s embarrassment, Scott peered into classrooms to see for herself what safety precautions were being taken.

Scott was not impressed: In some rooms, she saw desks clustered together and a few, rather than all, windows open.

“There’s 3,000 kids in here, and they’re not doing anything different,” Scott said. “It just looks like no effort was put in to some of the classrooms.”

Berkeley Unified’s COVID-19 safety plan does not list social distancing as a strategy to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 in classrooms, nor does California Department of Public Health recommend distancing in schools when universal masking is in place.

In response, Scott has equipped her 11th-grade daughter with lysol wipes and hand sanitizer and plans to have her tested twice weekly.

Back at the Berkeley High gates, Raygoza said mitigating the spread of COVID-19 would be a major priority going into the school year.

“The goal is to not only physically reopen, but to stay open,” Raygoza said.

Berkeley High School students arrive on campus on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Longfellow Middle School Principal Paco Furlan greets parents and students with a fist bump on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Washington Elementary School 5th grade teacher Mindy Geminder assists students with classwork on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Berkeley High School science instructor Devon Brewer teaches class on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
BUSD Superintendent Dr. Brent Stevens assists a Berkeley High School student on campus on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Washington Elementary School 4th grade teacher Oscar Zarate instructs students in physical education on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Washington Elementary School Principal Katia Hazen looks in on a first grade class on Aug. 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

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,...