Berkeley school district board plans for virtual instruction in fall 2020

BUSD meeting Berkeley Unified School District
Trish McDermott/Courtesy

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At the virtual Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, meeting Wednesday, board members passed a series of priorities for the fall semester and a noninstructional week in June to allow for additional fall planning.

At the meeting, the board members discussed issues of equity and student mental health during the COVID-19 pandemic and voted on a series of guiding principles and priorities for planning fall instruction, in light of the expectation that COVID-19 will continue to be present in Berkeley going into the fall semester.

“This fall, distance learning will form the core of our educational program for all students, at all grades, so improving on distance learning will be our first priority,” said BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens at the meeting.

Because on-campus instruction, if allowed by state and local policies, is likely to be limited, planning for the use of campuses is a secondary priority, Stephens added.

During the public comment period, Daijah Conerly, Berkeley High School’s student body vice president, spoke to the board about the issues students, particularly seniors in high school, are facing with mental health and a lack of clear guidance from teachers.

“It’s hard to maintain motivation when we’ve been working for four years, and all these things are being taken away from us at once,” Conerly said at the meeting. “A lot of people wonder what they’re working towards; a lot of people feel hopeless.”

BUSD student director Estella Hemp also discussed the mental health issues students are facing, referencing data from a recent survey of Berkeley High seniors, which showed that many students feel depressed and unmotivated to finish their coursework.

The board also passed an action item designating June 8-12 as a week for students to make up work and for teachers to plan for the fall semester. During this week, teachers will not be expected to hold office hours, and students may continue to turn in work.

Some board members raised concerns that students who are struggling with motivation and communication with teachers may have difficulties contacting teachers about makeup work, as office hours will be canceled. The item was passed with a change to affirm that teachers are still expected to be responsive to students throughout the week.

The board also discussed issues of equity in planning for the fall semester and continued virtual instruction. The gap in school performance between privileged and underprivileged students has been exacerbated by COVID-19, according to BUSD board member Ka’Dijah Brown.

With BUSD experiencing a loss of $7.2 million in revenue and additional COVID-19 expenses of $1 million, according to Stephens, the board will need to find ways to decrease expenses. Funding for equity efforts is also potentially threatened due to decreased state funding, Stephens added.

“We’re not letting go of these ideas just because we’re in a budget crunch,” Stephens said at the meeting. “As we enter into budget discussions in June, we’ll present options for the ongoing funding of these equity priorities despite the many reductions we’ll have to make.”

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.