‘A heartbreaking situation’: Berkeley school district, local teachers weigh school reopening plans

Rosa Parks Elementary School in Southwest Berkeley, which remains closed for the summer.
Karin Goh/File
Berkeley Unified School District is currently working with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers to explore options for the 2020-2021 school year, which include all-online instruction and a hybrid plan.

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As Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, prepares for back-to-school season, many teachers have expressed concerns about returning to in-person instruction during the COVID-19 pandemic.

BUSD is currently working with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, to develop teaching models for the 2020-2021 school year. Options include all-online instruction and a hybrid plan, which would alternate between in-person and virtual learning and stagger days on which students would come to school.

According to Cynthia Allman, BFT treasurer and a local kindergarten teacher, the district is faced with a difficult choice between the “vital human contact” of in-person teaching and the safety of educators, students and their families.

“This is a heartbreaking situation for everyone involved,” Allman said in an email. “The entire community relies on our schools for the structure that allows adults to work … Yet, COVID-19 cases are still rising, testing is lacking, PPE shortages loom again and schools are facing budget cuts rather than being given the resources they need to open safely.”

BUSD community engagement director Natasha Beery said there are concerns over the district’s need to purchase electrostatic cleaners, hand-washing stations, plexiglass dividers and supplies to enable students and staff to work remotely.

Beery added that these expenses — which could cost millions — coincide with local budget shortfalls, making the transition to hybrid or distance learning difficult.

BFT president Matt Meyer said he believes Berkeley teachers should play an important role in the district’s reopening decision.

“Our advocacy has been guided by our member surveys, direct communications with teachers and our Executive Board. The district also sought teacher input through an advisory group,” Meyer said in an email. “Both BUSD and BFT have the best interests of students and educators at heart.”

According to Meyer, BUSD aims to support teachers with health conditions by asking them to provide documentation of their high-risk status. The district plans on speaking with teachers individually if they request personalized accommodations.

A recent BFT questionnaire, however, suggests that relatively few Berkeley teachers would be unable to return to in-person instruction if they were given the option. More than two-thirds of BFT’s membership, however, are willing to return to classrooms if certain health and safety requirements are met, according to the survey, Allman said.

Beery added that the public health standards required to allow for partial in-person instruction include reduced COVID-19 cases, increased testing availability and sufficient personal protective equipment for BUSD staff.

Another consideration for reopening is the role that Berkeley schools play in the community, according to Beery.

“The barriers are significant,” Beery said in an email. “But we know that schools are necessary not only for the primary educational purpose of student learning, but also for parents/guardians’ ability to return to work and the social-emotional wellbeing of our students.”

Contact Mattias Hoz at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @hozmattias.