Berkeley school district board grapples with shift to distance learning

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Berkeley Unified School District board members convened remotely for a special meeting March 19 and a regular meeting Wednesday to discuss changes taking place amid the COVID-19, or the new coronavirus, pandemic.

Schools nationwide closed and transitioned to online coursework, affecting more than 55 million students. The Alameda County Office of Education announced March 25 that the closure of schools in the Bay Area has been extended until May 1.

BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens said at the district’s special meeting that the transition to online-based classes has led to a “complete rethinking” of the district’s operations, posing a challenge to BUSD and all California school districts.

“We are working hard to try and figure out how to move a district’s worth of educational experience to an online environment,” Stephens said at the meeting.

Two resolutions related to COVID-19 were passed at the special meeting. One resolution will allow interfund transfers, or the ability to move money between different funds. BUSD Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Pauline Follansbee said the move will enable transfers to happen in case the district faces an interruption of cash flow from the county.

The second resolution passed at the meeting aims to support students through challenges associated with distance learning. The resolution addresses technological disparities faced by students and families, supporting students with special needs and developing a program to train teachers in online technologies, among several other measures.

During the regular meeting, BUSD directors expressed both disappointment and determination regarding school closures.

“This time has really brought forth a lot of self-reflection,” said BUSD Student Director Estella Hemp. “Not only am I grateful to have come from BUSD, but I’m so grateful to be a part of it right now and to have the people that are in this community to support and to look towards and come together.”

During the meeting, Stephens presented the Distancing Learning Plan, which will go into effect April 6.

The Distance Learning Plan consists of three components: weekly activity sets, weekly assignments from teachers and two 90-minute office hours on Zoom each week.

Activity sets will be created by teams of distance-learning teacher leaders, who will send grade or course-specific content to families to help with the online learning process. Students in preschool through eighth grade can expect projects, recommended assignments and lessons within these activity sets; sets for high school students will vary according to their individual schedule.

Weekly assignments from teachers could include recorded videos or livestreamed class meetings. The 90-minute office hours will allow students to have real-time interaction with their teachers with the goal of maintaining “class camaraderie,” according to the plan.

Another point of conversation at the board meetings was grading. In light of UC Berkeley announcing spring 2020 grades will default to pass/no pass grading, BUSD Director Ka’Dijah Brown mentioned the possibility of BUSD following suit.

Stephens said the grading policy is “the center of our dilemma” and the district does not yet have a “great” solution.

“Under these circumstances, it feels somewhat unfair to grade students on assignments when we understand there are all kinds of accessing issues that are limiting students,” Stephens said at the meeting. “Even if we do pass/no pass, we have got to ask ourselves, ‘How comfortable do we feel not passing students under these circumstances?’ ”

At this time, the district is looking for state guidance regarding grading policies instead of generating its own policy, according to Stephens.

“We’re under really extraordinary circumstances right now,” Stephens said at the meeting. “The first step is encouraging empathy for what families are experiencing.”

Contact Julie Madsen and Kaleo Mark at [email protected].