Berkeley school district board discusses COVID-19 response

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Updates on COVID-19, colloquially known as the coronavirus, were at the center of the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, meeting Wednesday.

As of press time, the city of Berkeley has two confirmed cases of COVID-19. In light of growing concerns that the disease may spread, BUSD canceled nonessential gatherings and large community events Tuesday. Preventative measures the school district is currently undertaking were presented at Wednesday night’s meeting.

BUSD superintendent Brent Stephens, BUSD community relations and Berkeley Schools Excellence Program director Natasha Beery and BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott addressed the board with updates.

“We are in a time in which we are being reminded in a really graphic way of how interconnected we all are. … It’s really clear to us that we can’t do this alone. We are all in this together,” Beery said at the meeting. “We are relying upon the expertise of multiple partners. … There is a lot that we need to be doing to look at what the current situation is.”

Beery added that the school district wants to ensure that all information given out to the community is “accurate and accessible.” According to McDermott, the school district receives advice from multiple health agencies on a given day and is doing its best to filter for pertinent information quickly.

In order to mitigate the spread of the disease, the school district is looking to adapt plans and communication to evolving needs, clarify absence and illness policies and increase facility cleaning. Over the weekend, according to Stephens, the school district offered custodial staff overtime pay to do a thorough cleaning in all school district buildings.

“What we are being guided to do by way of cleaning really exceeds the staffing capacity of our custodial crew,” Stephens said at the meeting. “We’ve had trouble accessing supplies just like every other district has in the state … so we simply have not been able to provide the cleaning materials to every classroom in the school district.”

Between now and March 31, the school district is also encouraging social distancing by canceling assemblies, concerts, some field trips and student travel. BUSD is also planning for the possibility of a confirmed coronavirus case in the school district. According to the presentation, the school district would consider a full school or district closure.

In considering closing the district or schools, according to Stephens, the school district is “struggling” to find alternative modes of education. Some home learning could be possible, however, with libraries and technology departments providing resources and nutrition services offering take-home meals.

“Some smaller schools or other districts can pull it off, but as we assess our current capacities, our training level, our access to technology across our full community, I’m not convinced that we can do this right now,” Stephens said during the meeting.

Julie Madsen is the lead schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @Julie_Madsen_.