BUSD School Masking 3/17 09
Students play hopscotch at Willard Middle School, where students will be back in classrooms Aug. 15. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

Students will return to Berkeley classrooms Aug. 15 amid an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases caused by the contagious omicron sub-variant BA.5.

The city’s case rates are “higher than [they have] been at some other points in the pandemic, but we are ready,” district spokesperson Trish McDermott said during a board meeting Wednesday night.

She said the district’s goal “is to get back as much as we possibly can to those pre-COVID practices.”

McDermott used the California Department of Public Health’s latest COVID-19 guidance for schools to characterize the district’s response to the pandemic.

“COVID-19 is here to stay, but we have learned methods and gained tools to decrease its impact on our health and well-being,” she said, quoting from CDPH’s June 30 guidelines, describing the district’s approach as “sustainable and adaptive.”

Here’s how BUSD plans to navigate the third year of the pandemic:

Masks are strongly encouraged

When classes start in August, masks will be strongly recommended indoors but not required in Berkeley Unified schools.

Last year, BUSD started the school year with a mask mandate, which it lifted in March following updated guidance from California Public Health. Many students continued to wear masks indoors.

When cases started to rise in May, the district reinstated the mandate again under the recommendation of Berkeley Health Officer Lisa Hernandez.

Reported case rates remain elevated but are 2.5 times lower now than they were in May.

More field trips, assemblies, volunteers

Returning to “pre-COVID practices” means more field trips and assemblies, and more leeway with parents and other caregivers coming into the school buildings while dropping off and picking up their children from school. Volunteers will also be allowed in classrooms again.

But, McDermott cautioned that “we have to be flexible” to changing rules during periods of higher transmission. “Some things may have to be adjusted,” she said.

Students, staff don’t have to be vaccinated

BUSD students and staff are not required to be vaccinated against COVID-19.

Last year, BUSD passed a vaccine mandate for staff that was set to kick in this school year. It also required students to be vaccinated or get tested on a weekly basis, though the district never passed a vaccine mandate for students.

The district walked back both of those policies in June, rescinding the vaccine-or-test rule for students and putting on holding a vaccine mandate for staff. As of last year, 92% of staff were vaccinated against the virus.

Unvaccinated staff are still required to get tested weekly.

The district still encourages vaccination. This summer, BUSD ran a social media campaign to promote vaccination and will hold vaccination clinics with the city on Saturday Aug. 6 and Aug. 13. The clinics are targeted toward preschoolers, but anyone eligible for a vaccine or booster can attend.

Unvaccinated students don’t have to quarantine after exposure

Unvaccinated students and staff are not required to stay home after being exposed to COVID-19. That policy changed in December, when the CDC updated its rules. (All people who are exposed should still wear a mask around others for 10 days, regardless of vaccination status.)

The state guidelines on returning to school after a positive COVID-19 test result have not changed since the last year.

After testing positive, students and staff are required to stay home for five days. They can return to school on day six with a negative test result and improving symptoms, and are required to wear a mask for 10 days after the positive test.

Switching to at-home rapid tests

Last year, BUSD relied on testing over contact tracing to keep schools open through the omicron surge, relying on volunteers to implement widespread testing.

This year, the district will focus testing efforts on people who were exposed to the virus, though they plan to do some surveillance testing during periods of high transmission. The district will distribute at-home test kits instead of administering tests at school.

BUSD is passing out rapid tests before the first day of school and asking students to take two tests before returning Aug. 15.

Monkeypox not a major concern

McDermott said BUSD was training principals to recognize the rashes associated with monkeypox and be able to respond appropriately, though children remain at lower risk for the disease.

“There are a handful of children in the U.S. who now have monkeypox,” she said. “No one thinks this is going to hit outbreak proportions in our schools.”

You can read more BUSD’s full COVID mitigation plan on the district website. Questions about the district’s COVID-19 policies? Email covidcase@berkeley.net.

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,...