Berkeley school district votes to implement distance learning despite parents’ pleas for in-person instruction

busd meeting virtual
Brianna Luna/Staff
Berkeley Unified School District students will begin the 2020-21 school year with online learning due to safety concerns about returning to in-person classes amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

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Despite a push from parents for in-person classes, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, voted to pursue distance learning during a special board meeting Wednesday.

BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens recommended an online start to the school year in a letter to the Berkeley community Monday. In the letter, Stephens explained that rising hospitalization rates, delays in testing and current shelter-in-place orders informed this decision.

“As we take stock of our full situation — and taking seriously the alarming rise of COVID-19 in our region — I know that this delay is the responsible thing to do,” Stephens said in the letter. “I still see that a return to on-campus learning is possible; I just don’t see that doing so on August 17th is feasible.”

In response, parents expressed concerns about online schooling during the Wednesday meeting, emphasizing the importance of in-person instruction in engaging younger students.

Several shared that they were displeased with the distance learning in the spring. Parent Melanie Schoenberg said though her son remained physically in front of the computer, she believed he was not connecting or engaging.

Some parents raised concerns about added responsibilities on parents and learning gaps between public and private schools. Others said online attendance requirements were not feasible or fair to households with working parents.

Teachers, however, pushed BUSD to make stronger commitments to online learning, especially for preschools.

Washington Elementary School teacher Hannah Margulis-Kessel said more than 200 educators had signed a letter requesting BUSD to reopen preschools under the same criteria as TK-12 programs.

“To teach the youngest students at this time in person would create an unsafe learning environment,” Margulis-Kessel said during the meeting. “It is not safe to return to classrooms yet.”

Deborah Thies, a special education teacher at Franklin Preschool, added that she and her colleagues felt scared to interact with unmasked children.

Thies said she believes the risk of COVID-19 is the same for children as it is for adults and asked for BUSD to be “confident” in local improvements before asking teachers and students to return.

Alex Day, a ninth grade teacher at Berkeley High School, urged BUSD to “lean into” distance learning, saying that additional planning time would increase educational outcomes.

“Spring was crisis learning, not distance learning,” Day said during the meeting. “I hear the inadequacies of distance learning, but I must strongly encourage us to take a science-centered approach to this pandemic.”

After hearing public comments, BUSD remained firm in its intent to begin the academic year with distance learning. The district had initially planned to implement a hybrid approach to reopening but changed course in light of worsening COVID-19 conditions in “hotbeds” across Alameda County.

Board members then unanimously voted to approve distance learning for the start of the 2020-21 school year. During the meeting, BUSD also approved a COVID-19 mitigation policy and short-term accommodations for medically vulnerable personnel.

According to Stephens, BUSD plans to announce a detailed plan for distance learning July 29, followed by a series of town halls for feedback.

Contact Victoria Stafford at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @VictoriaStaffrd.