Berkeley school district announces school closures

File of Berkeley High School.
Chen Gong/File
As a result of the rise of COVID-19 cases in the region, Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Brent Stephens recommends distance learning as the school board's method of instruction for the fall semester.

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Update 3/12/2020: This brief has been updated to include information from Berkeley High School Athletics.

Update 3/13/2020: This brief has been updated to include additional information from Berkeley High School Athletics.

Update 3/13/2020: This brief has been updated to include additional information from BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens.

Update 3/16/2020: This brief has been updated to include additional information from Stephens after Alameda County ordered a “shelter in place.”

Berkeley Unified School District announced Thursday that it would be closing high schools effective Friday and all preschools, elementary schools, middle schools and the Berkeley Adult School effective starting March 16 in response to the risk of COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus.

According to a message written by BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens, high schools will be closed earlier than the other schools in order to allow high school teachers to explore at-home learning options. The district office will also be closed during these days.

“Please know that the Board of Education and I do not take this decision lightly,” Stephens said in the message. “We wrestled a great deal to measure the costs and benefits of closing our schools.”

According to a message from Stephens on Friday, all grades will be suspended during the period of closure for all grade levels and all courses in the school district. Optional home learning resources will be offered through BUSD’s website March 16, including free online resources and educational games, reading materials and grade-level specific activities.

He added that teachers will not be expected to work or respond to emails during this period.

“Like all of us, our employees will also be contending with the impact of the outbreak on their own families and communities,” Stephens said in the Friday message.

Stephens said in the message that BUSD hopes to reopen April 6 after its spring break ends.

He added that the emergence of new COVID-19 cases in Alameda County pushed the district to make the decision to close.

“I have been deeply touched by the overwhelming concern I hear in our community about protecting our most vulnerable individuals from the coronavirus,” Stephens said in the message. “It’s very important that we all do our part to prevent the further spread of the virus.”

Berkeley High School Athletics also announced that it will be shut down through at least the end of spring break. Both games and practices are canceled until April 6, and its facilities will be closed.

In the Friday message, Stephens announced that the BUSD Board of Education would be meeting to adopt an emergency resolution in response to COVID-19. Stephens added that the school board will also hold a public special meeting March 16 to discuss its response to the pandemic.

“Please know how appreciative we are of the patience and goodwill that so many people are exhibiting in the face of the coronavirus pandemic,” Stephens said in the message Friday. “We’ve already been contacted by dozens of students, parents, and community members – as well as Mayor (Jesse) Arreguín and our City of Berkeley partners – with offers to help.”

BUSD still plans to provide breakfast and lunch throughout the week for students who need it, unless directed to close by health officials, according to Stephens’ Friday message. The schools that will be offering food include Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, Berkeley Arts Magnet School, Rosa Parks Elementary School, Longfellow Middle School, Willard Middle School and Berkeley High School. Meals will be for takeout only and cafeterias will be closed.

AC Transit suspended supplemental services to school districts in the East Bay, including BUSD, as a result of the closures.

On Monday, Alameda County issued a “shelter in place” order, but Stephens said the district remains unsure about how this will affect its future plans.

He added that the district will likely only be in operation for “core functions” during the time of the shelter in place, which would include completing payroll, offering meals to families, distributing laptops to families who need them and offering online materials.

“Of course, we will take advantage of teleconferencing technology, but I do expect that this order will slow our progress on this work,” Stephens said in an email.

The order complicates the district’s original plan to reopen schools on April 6, according to Stephens, who said that school closure lasting more than three weeks is “very probable.” He did say, however, that the district still plans to reassess the situation April 6, with guidance from county and city health officers.

Check here for live updates on the COVID-19 situation in Berkeley. 

Kate Finman is the university news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @KateFinman_DC.