More than 300 people attended a virtual town hall held by Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, on Wednesday evening to address concerns about COVID-19 and the fall semester.
Topics of discussion included potential modifications to online learning, the desire for more real-time instruction, budget concerns for the upcoming school year, mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and ways to implement social distancing if schools reopen in fall.
BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens said schools are likely to reopen in fall but under social distancing conventions. He added that he anticipates some combination of in-person and distance learning in order to reduce the number of students on campus, as social distancing may not be possible in standard classrooms.
“We do anticipate our facilities will be open, but that it will look very different from the standard school year,” Stephens said at the event. “We very likely will only be able to bring some students back at any given moment of time, while other students are very likely engaged in a revised version of distance learning.”
According to Stephens, the economic impact of COVID-19 could result in less funding for public schools, as state spending increases and revenue decreases. Stephens added that the potentially decreased budget could make achieving smaller class sizes by hiring more teachers difficult.
“All of this is very difficult, that the very moment that we have increased needs to serve our students, we are also facing the prospect of decreased resources,” Stephens said at the event.
Stephens also addressed concerns about what BUSD will do if the COVID-19 outbreak spreads in waves over an extended period of time. As schools gradually reopen, he said, some expect there will be an increase in infection rates, especially with the cooler fall weather and the flu season.
Due to these confounding factors, Stephens said he believes it is possible that school closures could occur again next year.
“Ideally, it’s an improved version of the distance learning that we are attempting on an emergency basis through the remainder of this quarter,” Stephens said at the event. “Plan A will be some hybrid version of school facilities plus distance learning. Plan B will be distance learning exclusively.”
In addition, BUSD Associate Superintendent Bajé Thiara announced that the use of Zoom to conduct classes will be reinstated May 4, following changes to its security protocol. According to Thiara, teachers will have the option to use Zoom or Google Meet.
The Q&A portion of the event was facilitated using a crowdsourcing tool called Thoughtexchange, which allowed participants to give input on certain subjects and identified the most pressing questions.
The Thoughtexchange will remain open for additional comment on the BUSD website until May 4, after which the district may release answers to some additional questions. The next town hall will be held May 13.