Berkeley schools scramble under strain of delta variant

A week and a half after the start of classes, the district is bracing for an uptick in COVID-19 case counts. About 16% of staff aren’t fully vaccinated. And remote learning enrollment, still very low, ticks upward.

on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
Students enter their classrooms at Washington Elementary. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

About 9,000 Berkeley students went back to school in person on Monday, Aug. 16, many for the first time in 15 months. But the week and a half that followed has been a difficult one, plagued by challenges district officials are attributing to the delta variant.

“We were prepared for the COVID of last spring,” School Board member Julie Sinai said Wednesday evening during the board’s second meeting of the year. “None of us have really been prepared for the spread of the delta variant,” she said, referring not just to Berkeley Unified, but to all government and private agencies.

“We’re in an untenable situation right now, and we really need help,” Sinai said. “And I don’t think it’s anybody’s fault. I think the delta variant has thrown our entire state, you know, off-kilter.”

At the board meeting, district officials, parents and teachers shared challenges from the first eight days of school. “We seek to be transparent about with our community” about “some of the strains we are experiencing,” Superintendent Brent Stephens said.


Parents reported mixed messages about COVID-19 exposure protocols. Some said they heard from their kids that the air filters weren’t running or that windows weren’t open. Teachers said they were struggling to keep up, with a statewide shortage of substitutes and teachers out for reasons related to COVID-19. Berkeley Unified School District delayed the start of its surveillance testing program due to a statewide test shortage. Stephens said they thought they could start testing earlier this week, but the testing program will begin Aug. 30.

“I have been at BHS for 21 years. I have never had a Week 1 like this. We are barely operating. It will fall, and staff will fall alongside it from exhaustion, stress and overwhelm,” said Hasmig Minassian, a ninth-grade ethnic studies teacher who leads the Universal 9th Grade program at Berkeley High. Minassian said she has spent every prep period covering for teachers who are out, including one whose child tested positive for COVID-19.

“I’m not an alarmist, but I’m ringing the alarm and alerting you we’re flying this plane in severe turbulence, relying on a very malfunctioning autopilot,” Minassian said.

Confusion, communication blunders for COVID-19 case tracking

Anne Peattie, the parent of a King Middle School sixth-grader, got an email last Wednesday that there had been a positive case on campus, but she had not been alerted that her child had come into close contact with someone with COVID-19. She said she sent daughter to school as usual, only to find out that the girl had been a close contact and needed to quarantine. When Peattie got to the school, the directions had changed: Her daughter could now stay at school as long as she promised to get a COVID-19 test within 48 hours. (Once the district implements its testing program, students will be able to get tested upon arriving at school, BUSD says.)

Peattie, whose daughter has asthma, was “furious and frustrated” by the school’s mishandling of the situation. Plus, she said, allowing kids who came in close contact while masked to attend school until they receive a negative test is a recipe for disaster.

“Even if my kid’s test is negative this week, she’ll be just as vulnerable next week, and the week after that, and all the way until she’s fully vaccinated,” Peattie wrote in an email to Berkeleyside. “I don’t see how I can send her back to school in this situation.”

Peattie’s not the only one who has gotten mixed messages about the district’s COVID-19 protocols. At the board meeting, Superintendent Brent Stephens said that the delta variant posed a challenge for the district.

“[The uptick] is putting a tremendous strain on our administrative resources, and our ability to communicate clearly to our community, and to track multiple cases and ensure that we minimize the disruption to students education,” Stephens said.

The district plans to hire additional staff to assist with family communication around COVID-19, Stephens said.

BUSD braces for an uptick in COVID19 case counts

In August, Berkeley schools has had 25 positive cases of COVID-19, many occurring before the first day of school. That’s many more cases than the district saw in the spring and nothing compared with what they expect once surveillance testing starts.

“This month alone we’ve had more cases on our campuses, more cases we’re investigating than in the previous four months combined,” Stephens said.

“I’m nervous that the alarm bells are going to go really hog-wild once we start doing surveillance testing.” — Julie Sinai, school board member

BUSD has received a shipment of 20,000 COVID-19 test kits to begin implementing surveillance testing. BUSD will start using rapid tests on their campuses soon.

“We’re going to find a lot more cases, because there’s a lot of asymptomatic people, people who do not show any kind of COVID symptoms who could be carriers of COVID,” Sinai said. “I’m nervous that the alarm bells are going to go really hog-wild once we start doing surveillance testing.”

At the Los Angeles school district, students are required to be tested weekly, leading to early identification of cases that would otherwise go unnoticed. There are 2,304 active COVID-19 cases in the Los Angeles district, which has just under 600,000 students. In the first week of school, 6,500 students stayed home for at least one day, either because they tested positive for COVID-19 or were in close contact with a positive case.

About 16% of staff are not fully vaccinated

As of Thursday, there are 285 staff members who are either fully or partially unvaccinated or who do not appear in the state database, about 16% of all district employees. A total of 1,490 staff members are vaccinated. (These figures take into account the 20 additional fully vaccinated staff members confirmed by BUSD after Wednesday night’s board meeting.)

BUSD announced two weeks ago that it would require all district employees to get vaccinated or tested weekly for COVID-19 as soon as Sep. 3.

The district could not determine whether teachers had different rates of vaccination than other staff members at the time this story was published.

The board planned to consider requiring student-athletes to get vaccinated at last night’s board meeting, but Stephens said the district was not legally ready to make the call. In lieu of a vaccine mandate, the plan is for athletes to get tested twice-weekly.

The vast majority of students are learning in person, but more students joined remote learning after Week 1

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There are 156 students learning from home this year, according to data shared at the Aug. 25 board meeting. That’s up from the 101 students enrolled in the district’s virtual programs last Tuesday. We don’t know whether more families have joined due to concerns over COVID-19 or simply enrolled their children late. Still, the vast majority of Berkeley students are back on campuses in person.

Of the students learning from home, 112 are in an assisted home school program, the only remote option for middle and high school students. The other 44 are enrolled in Virtual Academy, the district program most similar to last year’s distance learning option, though there’s about an hour less of instructional time and no extra-curricular classes.

Board members hope to postpone decision about middle school enrollment to focus on managing COVID-19

Citing the strain of reopening schools during COVID-19, school board members Julie Sinai, Ana Vasudeo and Ka’Dijah Brown asked to delay changing the district’s middle school enrollment policy, a controversial and consequential decision that would reshape the landscape of the district’s three middle schools.

“I don’t want us to bite off more than we can chew this year,” said Vasudeo.

Currently, Longfellow has a greater proportion of disadvantaged students and lower test scores than King and Willard, according to a May 2020 report. It’s the district’s only “choice” middle school, but enrollment has declined in recent years. A change to the middle school enrollment policy, initially planned to take place in November, could change that.

This summer, an independent consultant conducted the first of two community engagement processes, including a survey that found that 41% of families wanted to have three middle school zones, instead of two.

Sinai said that, if rushed and passed without community buy-in, a change to the enrollment policy could lead families unhappy with their placement to leave the district.

Ty Alper, the board’s president, expressed concern that delaying the process was the right move, arguing that middle schools are segregated by race and class, which he sees as a “key equity issue.”

“Desegregating schools is always fraught. It can’t be that we’re afraid of pushback from the community,” Alper said.

No decision was made, and it remains to be seen whether the board will move forward with the timeline for changing the enrollment policy.

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