Berkeley parents advocate for sending children back to school this fall

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Martin Luther King Middle School is a public school in the city of Berkeley.

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Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, parent Doris Schioberg is considering taking her children out of school for the coming school year, as she struggled last spring with balancing her full-time job and child care, and found that Zoom learning did not meet her childrens’ needs.

Schioberg is not the only one. Although the Berkeley school board recently voted to continue distance learning in the fall, a July 8 survey found that 75% of parents preferred a hybrid instructional model to one that is fully online.

Schioberg’s concerns are not so much academic as they are emotional. Her children struggled on Zoom — she said it drained them to see their friends only online and to stay still for long periods of time. It was also time-consuming for Schioberg to set up the technology.

In the coming school year, Schioberg said she would like BUSD to provide some outdoor education options, or at least make Zoom attendance optional, rather than mandatory.

If neither of these things are possible, Schioberg will likely take her children out of BUSD and home-school them, possibly in a group, she said.

“Some (families) will leave because they are afraid of the academics, and they will go to private schools. We cannot prevent them from doing so,” Schioberg said. “But there are many parents like us, who want to stay with the school district, but we feel like we are being driven out, like we are being forced out.”

Working on a longer timeline, a parent-led group within BUSD is working with the district to explore options for outdoor education.

As a first step, the initiative is organizing visits to the Golestan School, a local private school currently piloting an outdoor learning program, for BUSD stakeholders — including school board members, principals and PTA representatives.

According to Jenny Mulholland-Beahrs, co-leader of the group and director of the California Outdoor Engagement Coalition, the group then hopes to identify a site for an outdoor learning pilot program, likely with one teacher and about 10 families. The group is also working with Sharon Danks, CEO of Green Schoolyards America.

Another Berkeley parent who wants his children to return to school is Jeffrey Rieger, but he sees the situation differently from Schioberg.

“Society has risks around it all the time, and COVID is one risk of many,” Rieger said. “We are doing more harm than good by keeping schools completely closed.”

Rieger said he thinks fully closing schools overestimates the danger of COVID-19 for people who are not at a high risk of infection, but that everyone should make their own choices. He added that the disease is spreading no matter what, so students should at least be learning.

BUSD will hold a town hall meeting next Monday to discuss its distance learning plan.

Contact Clara Brownstein at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @clarabrownstein.

A previous version of this article incorrectly named a parent-led group within BUSD as the COVID-19 Outdoor Learning Initiative.