CA reopening guidelines for public schools receive criticism from parents in Berkeley school district

Berkeley High School
Sunny Shen/File

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On June 8, California Gov. Gavin Newsom and the California Department of Education, or CDE, issued Stronger Together, a guidebook that addresses the reopening of public schools for fall 2020.

The guidebook targets local education agencies and is intended to direct school reopening discussions by incorporating health and safety checklists concerning school operations, questions for consideration and examples of good practice during the pandemic.

Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, spokesperson Trish McDermott said in an email that BUSD’s reopening guidelines will be primarily provided by Berkeley health officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez, with additional guidance provided by the CDE and the California Department of Public Health, among others. The district currently lacks sufficient information to establish fall school schedules, according to McDermott.

However, these state-issued guidelines have received criticism from parents and school administrators. According to Scott Hofmeister, treasurer of the Emerson Elementary School PTA, the proposed guidelines complicate matters for both the school and parents.

Hofmeister said since his school was at capacity before the shutdown, restricting students to groups of 12 at 6 feet apart would require half the students to be at home half the time to accommodate the guidelines.

“There really is no such thing as ‘distance learning’ for a 1st grader,” Hofmeister said in an email. “If kids are going to be home at or around 50% of the time, then we are really in a homeschooling model, where the parents are responsible for the teaching / management of our kids.”

Other parents, such as Heather Gilbert, co-president of the Berkeley Arts Magnet School PTA, alleged that fault lies with the school district’s financial inability to meet guidelines rather than the guidelines themselves.

This year, BUSD is experiencing a nearly $2 million shortfall from the district budget, which is the biggest cut yet, Gilbert said. This cut follows previous budget cuts over the past several years that ranged from $1-2 million.

Gilbert added that schools lack the necessary funding to be able to enact health measures such as installing additional sinks for student hand-washing, hiring additional janitors to disinfect facilities and providing classrooms with masks and thermometers to check temperatures.

“This is all to say that in February prior to the pandemic the district was already struggling to provide basic educational resources and maintain facilities,” Gilbert said in an email.

Additionally, limiting classrooms to groups of 12 students would require hiring twice as many teachers, as the average class size currently sits at 22-28 students, according to Gilbert.

With Berkeley’s tax measure to ensure a minimum standard-of-living pay for teachers, the district cannot afford to pay for additional teachers, Gilbert added.

“It is completely unrealistic for our public schools to be able to maintain educational standards and comply with the new restrictions all while suffering continued, unprecedented funding cuts,” Gilbert said in an email.

Contact Blake Evans at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @Blake_J_Evans.