Berkeley school district will likely begin fall with distance learning

File of Berkeley High School.
Chen Gong/File
As a result of the rise of COVID-19 cases in the region, Berkeley Unified School District Superintendent Brent Stephens recommends distance learning as the school board's method of instruction for the fall semester.

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Superintendent Brent Stephens recommended starting fall semester with distance learning ahead of the school board’s Wednesday vote on the method of instruction for fall.

In a letter sent to BUSD students’ guardians Monday, Stephens said as a result of the “alarming” rise of COVID-19 cases in the region, on-campus learning is not feasible for the beginning of the school year, which starts Aug. 17. He added that the city’s current shelter-in-place orders do not allow schools to reopen and that a decision was needed now. Stephens had previously said BUSD would transition to on-campus learning if shelter-in-place orders were modified.

“Among our earliest criteria for opening campuses on August 17 is a decrease in hospitalizations over 14 days, whereas currently we are seeing a 14 day rise,” Stephens said in the letter. “We need to return to campus when we are confident that local conditions have improved and our facilities, staffing, and procedures are truly ready.”

Instead, Stephens said attention will be directed toward strengthening distance learning models. For fall 2020, distance learning will include structured daily and weekly schedules, required attendance, live Zoom instruction, graded assignments and consistent communication with families. BUSD remains committed to providing accessible meal service, Chromebooks and hotspots during this time, Stephens added.

Elementary and middle schools will use distance learning until Oct. 9, with a reassessment of the capacity to transition to on-campus teaching by Sept. 15, according to the letter. This would only occur in compliance with public health guidelines.

High school students, however, will likely stay in distance learning until the December break, with supplemental after-school activities, such as some sports, clubs and science labs.

According to Stephens, BUSD is exploring a phased reopening, which would prioritize younger children and others with specific support needs, including “ed camps,” a new school-day program for children of essential workers. The reopening would begin as close to Aug. 17 as possible, after implementing required risk reduction practices such as social distancing guidelines, hand-washing, limiting bus ridership and improving air filtration units.

More details will be shared at the July 29 board meeting, when the board approves the distance learning models for fall 2020.

Maria Young is a deputy news editor. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @maria_myoung.