Berkeley schools to loosen COVID-19 restrictions

Overnight and indoor field trips can happen as soon as Feb. 28. Unvaccinated students will now be allowed to attend prom and other extracurricular events.

Students participate in physical education at Washington Elementary School on Aug. 16, 2021. Students will soon no longer be required to wear masks outdoors. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

As COVID-19 case counts continue to fall, the Berkeley school district has announced plans to lift some of its more stringent COVID restrictions.

Starting on Feb. 28, all Berkeley students will be permitted to go on indoor and overnight field trips, which have been on pause to mitigate the spread of COVID-19, according to a Feb. 11 email from Superintendent Brent Stephens.

Unvaccinated students will be allowed to attend these field trips, as well as all dances like prom, according to the email. And the district will hold off on enforcing a requirement that adults be vaccinated to attend school events, including graduation. (Unvaccinated students and staff are still required to get tested weekly.)

The district’s outdoor mask mandate could be among the next restrictions to be removed, Stephens announced, though a date has not yet been set.

In October, the Berkeley school board passed a policy requiring students to be vaccinated in order to attend indoor extracurricular events, but the district has not yet set a date for enforcing the mandate. The policy was supposed to kick in Jan. 3, but in the Feb. 11 email, Stephens announced the district would “delay” implementing the requirement, which would have banned unvaccinated students from indoor extracurricular events. This will allow for a spring prom attended by both vaccinated and unvaccinated students. (An Instagram account documenting prom proposals at Berkeley High has already cropped up, as has a GoFundMe raising money to lower ticket costs for students.)

The decision “balances the individual harm of excluding students from school celebrations with the incremental benefit in public health of this requirement,” Stephens wrote.

The percent of eligible Berkeley Unified students who are vaccinated has hovered around 80% since September.

Two weeks ago, parents took to public comment at the school board meeting to ask that overnight field trips be reinstated. And parents of unvaccinated students have publicly complained about their children’s exclusion from extracurricular events.

Stephens wrote that community events will take place outdoors and, when that’s not possible, will be limited to the maximum number of participants before the city of Berkeley’s vaccine mandate kicks in. Currently, indoor events of over 500 people require proof of vaccination in Berkeley.

“When the time is right, we look forward to a safe, less restrictive Spring in our schools,” Stephens wrote.

On Wednesday, the Berkeley School Board will vote on whether to require Berkeley Unified employees to be vaccinated. They would be required to do so by the end of the school year, leaving the district enough time to hire replacements for unvaccinated employees.

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