A group of Berkeley High School students compare class schedules  before school begins on August 16, 2021. Credit: Kelly Sullivan
A group of Berkeley High School students on Aug. 16, 2021. Allowing students to be outside unmasked is among the changes school board directors are considering making to the district’s COVID-19 restrictions. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

The number of COVID-19 cases, while still high, is beginning to decline at Berkeley schools as the omicron surge starts to recede.

Last week, 171 students tested positive for coronavirus, compared with 203 the week prior and 285 the week of Jan. 9. Before the omicron surge hit, BUSD’s typical weekly case count was in the single-digits.

While the school district has continued its aggressive testing regiment — over 1,000 people were tested in one afternoon at Berkeley High this week and not a single student tested positive, according to spokesperson Trish McDermott — district leaders have started to talk about easing COVID-19 restrictions.

Among the changes that school board directors were asked to weigh in on: allowing students be outdoors without a mask and permitting overnight and indoor field trips.

Growing numbers of parents have been complaining about these two precautions in particular, with some speaking about the value of field trips at school board meetings and calling the restrictions unnecessary.

At the meeting, parent Mati Teiblum, who spoke regularly about school reopening at board meetings last year, asked the board to rethink COVID-19 restrictions like outdoor masks and “remove the ones that aren’t reasonable today and not wait a single additional day.”

Other Berkeley parents have taken to online publications like Newsweek to argue that masking, especially the use of N95 and KN95 masks, is unnecessary and harmful to kids. Open Schools Berkeley, which last year advocated for school reopening, has a Twitter account that now regularly posts in favor of more relaxed measures in schools.

Berkeley Unified distributed KN95 masks to teachers and students in an effort to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 during the omicron surge. Berkeley’s health officer Lisa Hernandez recommend that people upgrade their masks during the latest surge, but declined to comment on the use of the respirations by children in schools.

Previously, the school’s outdoor masking policy meant that unvaccinated students, as long as they followed school masking rules, would always be eligible for modified quarantine after an on-campus exposure under California’s public health guidelines for schools, according to McDermott. But now, she said, the guidelines have changed and it’s time to consider changing the policy at BUSD.

At the Feb. 2 school board meeting, Ty Alper said he would like to see the outdoor masking requirement go “sooner rather than later, unless there’s science behind keeping that requirement.”

While Julie Sinai said she wanted to ease restrictions as the surge rescinds, she said it is challenging to make decisions about COVID-19 restrictions now, with not only community members but public health experts offering differing opinions. “Even among the public health scholars … it’s mixed,” Sinai said.

Ana Vasudeo said she doesn’t “think we’re out of the danger zone yet.” If we’re going to ease up on restrictions, Vasudeo said it should later rather than sooner, since the surge — while on the decline — is still ongoing.

The district is also anticipating that it will scale back its testing operation while continuing to offer testing once per week and requiring testing for unvaccinated individuals. Each week in January, the school district has staffed its testing operation with about 200 volunteers, provided through the Berkeley Public Schools Fund, in addition to several full-time employees — a massive effort that McDermott described as “unsustainable.”

Scaling back testing, contemplating a staff vaccine mandate

The school board also discussed a vaccine mandate for staff that would take effect at the end of the school year. The mandate would follow the CDC’s definition of fully vaccinated, which means staff would have to get two doses of the vaccine, but would not be required to get booster shots. The policy would allow medical and personal belief exemptions.

This fall, California Governor Gavin Newsom announced a student vaccine mandate that would take effect once the FDA fully authorizes the shot for children, and said a teacher vaccine mandate would follow suit. The district intends to beat the mandate by a few months, buying time to hire new staff to replace the staff members who do not want to get the shot.

While school board directors agreed on some sort of staff mandate, they were divided on whether adding an up-to-date booster to the mandate made sense.

Sinai argued that the district should consider adding boosters to the policy because, after six months, they were far more effective at preventing infection than two shots alone.

“By the fall hits, their vaccination immunity, if they’re not boosted, is waned. So having a vaccination requirement becomes somewhat moot,” Sinai said.

Vasudeo said that, while she supports a booster requirement, she is fine with an employee vaccine mandate requiring just two shots, since she expects a stricter policy could be coming at the state level.

But Alper and Babitt argued that adding a booster requirement would just mean more positions to fill at the end of the year, an already challenging task amid a nationwide teacher and substitute teacher shortage.

About 92% of the district’s nearly 2,000 employees are fully vaccinated, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard. School board director Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan asked the district to determine how many employees are not up to date on their booster shots.

A vaccine mandate policy will go before the school board for a vote in two weeks. There is no set timeline on when the board will consider easing COVID-19 restrictions like outdoor masking.

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,...