BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Juniper, a kindergartener at John Muir Elementary, hugs her dog Cooper goodbye before the first day of school on Aug. 15, 2022. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/ CatchLight.

At John Muir Elementary, dozens of little back-to-school dramas played out at the gates before the bell had rung.

A kindergartener named Juniper hugged her dog, Cooper, goodbye. As she walked to her first ever elementary class, her face red with tears, Cooper whined after her, tugging against the leash that chained him to the gate.

A sign welcoming the Grizzlies back to school became a de facto photo booth. One parent pleaded with her son to take a picture in front of the sign. “It’s your last one,” she said to the fifth grader. He refused.

Ivy, a first grader, climbed into her father Quentin Moore’s lap, her nerves getting the best of her. A few minutes later, Ivy was singing along to “If you’re happy and you know it” with her classmates in Ms. J’s class.

At Berkeley Unified, the specter of the pandemic lingered, but it did not dominate a first day back that, finally, felt pretty normal.

“It feels a little more normal,” said Juan Raygoza, principal of Berkeley High. “We have our COVID safeguards in place, but it feels like we’re actually starting a school year.”

BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Andy Thomas, a kindergarten teacher at John Muir, welcomes parents and students at the school’s playground. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Children wanted to know when recess started. Teenagers were preoccupied with their friends’ fits — the shoes, the baggy jeans. Teachers talked about their plans to improve instruction and parents looked forward to their kids’ academic gains.

In the hallways of Berkeley High, students traded compliments on new hairstyles, braids, streaks of blue and red and gelled-up mohawks bobbing in the hallways. One boy, looking lost and holding a school-issued planner, struggled to carry his bike up a second flight of stairs.

Principals at Willard and Berkeley High reported a renewed focus on academics.

Kelly Boylan, an AP U.S. History teacher, said she planned to push her students to go deeper, developing analytical skills rather than just understanding historical content. Her class will ask big questions: “What does it mean to be an American? What is the story of where this country comes from?”

At Willard Middle School, students in Sarah Griffith’s seventh grade English class had begun drafting their own short fiction stories, inspired by The Mysteries of Harris Burdick, while Sharon Arthur’s publishing students were learning how to identify fake news.

Willard Principal Chris Albeck said one of the school’s goals was to more closely engage families, especially those who had been historically underserved, in an effort to improve academic outcomes.

Parents allowed on campus again

BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Carrie Johnston’s first grade class at John Muir listen as Ms. J. outlines the school schedule. The students had many questions about when they would be able to go to recess, lunch and P.E. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

The day’s dramas mostly did not revolve around COVID-19.

BUSD passed out free at-home testing kits before schools reopened for the year. Out of 5,400 tests uploaded over the weekend, 13 staff and 57 students tested positive for the virus While cases remained high in Berkeley for much of the summer, they finally started to fall in recent weeks.

Masks are strongly recommended but not required inside Berkeley Unified schools. On the first day, many but not all students wore face coverings. And for the first time since March 2020, parents and caregivers were allowed on campus again.

Parents at John Muir gathered for coffee near a grove of redwood trees. “We’re hoping for less disruption from COVID,” said Mayan Bomsztyk, whose three sons attend John Muir. She said she was looking forward to volunteering more on campus.

As they walked into school, one parent urged her son to pull up his mask. He groaned. “I know,” she responded. “You just have to be patient this year.”

New leaders at the helm

BUSD First day of school, 2022.
BUSD’s new superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel chats with a group of teenagers at Berkeley High. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

A new superintendent and four new principals at Longfellow Middle School and John Muir, Sylvia Mendez and Rosa Parks Elementary also had their first days of school Berkeley.

Two days ago, new BUSD Superintendent Enikia Ford Morthel shared an energetic welcome video with the school community.

“Are you ready? Because we’re ready. Berkeley ready,” says a smiling Ford Morthel, which also features teachers, custodians, psychologists and other staff saying “Berkeley Ready” in unison.

YouTube video

Ford Morthel visited Berkeley High, Willard and John Muir on the first day of school, doling out greetings and hugs and drawing smiles from safety officers and even reluctant teenagers.

“I need a picture with you,” Ford Morthel said to a student wearing a cape and blue eyeliner who grinned and complied. “I need a cape,” she said, before requesting a selfie from a group of teenage boys

When touring classes, Ford Morthel presented herself as a people’s superintendent, joining students in an icebreaker game of human bingo in one class and lining up with students for attendance during P.E.

“There’s so much joy,” Ford Morthel said. “Our goal is to keep this up. We want this to be true for every student.”

BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Kelly Boylan’s AP U.S. History class held a “human bingo” icebreaker in which students had to find classmates who matched characteristics such as having been to three different countries or being a rollercoaster lover. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
BUSD First day of school, 2022.
A crossing guard helps students go to John Muir. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
BUSD First day of school, 2022.
A sign welcoming the Grizzlies back to school became a de facto photo booth. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Students catch up with friends at Berkeley High. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Ivy holds on to her dad Quentin Moore’s hand before starting first grade at John Muir. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Berkeley High students show off their shoes. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight
BUSD First day of school, 2022.
Sharon Arthur’s publishing students learned how to tell fake news from real news. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

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,...