Parents criticize distance learning practices at virtual Berkeley school district town hall

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Parents of Berkeley Unified School District students spoke directly to district leadership about distance learning at a virtual town hall meeting Thursday.

As schools across the nation move toward virtual learning, the school district has experienced early difficulties with its transition. During a class meeting over Zoom earlier this month, a man exposed himself and shouted obscenities in a video conference call with students before being removed by a teacher. After this “Zoombombing” incident, BUSD temporarily suspended the use of video conference instruction.

The school district, however, is expected to resume video conferences with students April 13 via Google Meet, according to BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens.

Brooke Warner, a single parent of a third grade student at Jefferson Elementary, said she feels the school district’s temporary stoppage of video classes was an “extreme reaction” to the Zoombombing incident.

“I hear you saying that you are taking it seriously, that safety is a value, but community is also a value,” Warner said during the town hall meeting.

Warner added that her son’s teacher started Zoom classes early and was already into the third week of distance learning before the school district’s decision to halt video conferencing.

Video classes have been the “saving grace” of Warner’s weeks, giving her a break but more importantly allowing her son to see his classmates and teacher.

“The social engagement that my son has with not only his teacher, but also with the fellow students is … more important than being flashed on a screen,” Warner said during the meeting.

Fani Garagouni said she felt her child’s Oxford Elementary teacher has not made sufficient efforts in the last four weeks to get in contact with students.

During this absence, Garagouni has been using Khan Academy to teach her son.

She also claimed there was a lack of teacher engagement and that more should be done to emotionally be there for students.

“It could be done in groups of three, it could be done by phone, it could be done by pigeons,” Garagouni said during the town hall meeting.

She added that she is considering pulling her child out of the school district completely and homeschooling him instead.

BUSD has done a “wonderful job,” according to Melinda King, parent of a Willard Middle School student. As a special education teacher and mental health care professional, King said she understands the legal situation the school district faces in light of the Zoombombing.

“This is uncharted territory and I know Berkeley Unified puts education first and puts the community first, and we can only do what we do as educators,” King said at the meeting. “I would ask everyone to be a little patient and just let’s continue to work together.”

Kaleo Mark is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @kaleomark_dc.