A Berkeley Unified student works remotely from home in October 2020. File photo: Pete Rosos

Only a tiny minority of Berkeley students are learning remotely this year.

As of Tuesday, just 101 students in the district were enrolled in Berkeley’s three independent study programs. That means about 99% of students districtwide are attending classes in person during the Berkeley Unified School District’s first week of classes, which began Monday.

It’s a big change from last semester, with far fewer families keeping students home this year. In the spring, 66% of students districtwide were enrolled in person or in hybrid learning and 80% of elementary students were attending in-person classes five days per week.

Unlike last year’s distance learning, this year’s remote option has slashed instructional time by about an hour and does not offer enrichment. For middle and high schoolers, only assisted homeschooling programs are available.

Jessica Stiles’s fourth-grade daughter is one of the students now enrolled in Virtual Academy, a remote learning option available only to elementary-aged kids that offers about three hours of live education per day. Her eighth-grade son, who is vaccinated, is back in person at Willard Middle School.

Concern over surging cases associated with the delta variant is at the heart of Stiles’ decision to keep her daughter remote. She worries that this year’s more lenient COVID-19 guidelines do not account for increased transmission of the virus or the possibility of long COVID. The frequency of long COVID among children is still hotly debated among researchers, with results of studies varying widely.

“As a parent, it’s hard not to be consumed with self-doubt and guilt that you’re depriving your kid of the more enriching experience that her in-person classmates must be having,” Stiles wrote in a text message to Berkeleyside, but she said she had a “gut feeling” that keeping her daughter home was the right thing to do.

The American Academy of Pediatrics continues to recommend in-person learning with universal masking.

In addition to Virtual Academy, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) has another option for families who wish to keep their kids at home this year. There’s Assisted Home School for students in grades K-8 and Berkeley Independent Study for high schoolers. Both programs, which existed long before the pandemic, offer little live instruction compared to Virtual Academy and require parents to be heavily involved.

Heidi Weber, principal of all three of the district’s remote learning programs, declined to comment for this story.

Like Stiles, some parents are keeping kids home due to concerns about COVID-19, while other families may prefer a home-schooling option, which offers greater flexibility and autonomy. Students enrolled in Assisted Home School and the high school’s Independent Study program can meet in person if they choose, a common option for these students prior to the pandemic.

Families can switch their children back and forth from in person to the independent study programs as often as necessary, but the district cannot promise a spot in the child’s in-person school, a caveat that many families say deterred them from opting for Virtual Academy.

“We would have loved to see a Distance Learning option where families could opt into online learning for the start of the school year, and then rejoin the classroom post-surge,” Meredith Janson, the mother of a third-grader at Ruth Acty Elementary, wrote in an email. “For us, Independent Study was off the table because of the social-emotional impact of having to unenroll from our school.”

Parents in the Berkeley Unified Distance Choice Advocates Facebook group, which formed last winter as schools were reopening in person, also said they would like to see more regular testing at Berkeley schools, which currently promises every-other-week surveillance testing. At a meeting Aug. 11, school board members also advocated for more frequent COVID-19 testing.

Per California Ed Code, students with “exceptional needs” may not participate in Independent Study unless their Individualized Education Plan (IEP) specifies that they must be allowed to.

So far, Stiles said, she’s been pleased with the academics at Virtual Academy. “The teacher seems great, the kids seem to be being good sports about doing virtual again,” she wrote in a text message.

Her fourth-grader is taught by a veteran BUSD elementary school teacher. Her classmates are a mix of fourth- and fifth-graders from around the school district. There were 10 students in class on Monday: Two more students joined Tuesday and by Wednesday, there were about 15 students logged into Zoom, Stiles estimates, though she isn’t sure why new students are showing up.

Even though everything went smoothly, Stiles worries about what her daughter will be missing out on, from socializing to enrichment. “There really are no good options as a parent right now,” Stiles said.

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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,...