Berkeley school district addresses concerns about student engagement, fall curriculum

Berkeley High School
Daniela Cervantes/File
During its virtual town hall Monday, Berkeley Unified School District officials described the changes to the high school curriculum in light of students having only 50% of the usual class time.

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At a virtual town hall Monday, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, officials responded to concerns about individual student engagement and mental health during distance learning.

During the town hall, which received more than 400 questions from Berkeley community members, parents raised concerns about engagement and support for students as distance learning continues into the fall semester. BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens emphasized the district’s efforts to meet families’ individual needs by balancing consistency and flexibility.

The circumstances families are facing during COVID-19 vary greatly, Stephens said at the meeting. To account for this variation, BUSD’s elementary schools will have a two-week period during which teachers will meet one-on-one with families to plan out how to address their individual needs.

In addition, in order for teachers to have more one-on-one time with students, all of the BUSD schools will shift to focus on small group instruction, according to Debbie Dean, BUSD director of TK-8 schools.

The elementary school schedule has been designed to balance developmentally appropriate breaks from screen time with live interaction with teachers, Stephens added, noting that some parents have raised concerns about students rejecting Zoom sessions.

“We’re trying to take into account the developmental differences of students,” Stephens said at the meeting.

To create a more uniform experience for students, Stephens added, all grades will use uniform technology platforms and will be returning to typical grading and report cards.

In response to parent concerns about student social and emotional health, Stephens said teachers have been receiving professional development centered around community building and digital citizenship. Teachers will be spending more time directly interfacing with families, and additional support services will be provided at all grade levels.

Stephens also described and responded to questions about the changes to the high school curriculum in light of students having only 50% of the usual class time.

“We are forced to reduce instructional time significantly, either because we can’t get kids back on campus or because of humans’ limitations in being on Zoom,” Stephens said at the meeting.

For students, managing a high school-level class load of six classes virtually proved extremely difficult, Stephens said. So, the high school curriculum has been reformatted into eight terms, during which students will only have three classes at a time.

Although less material will be covered, teachers are currently working on identifying essential standards for classes and repacing the curriculum to fit the new learning environment, according to Stephens.

“We will try to mitigate the lost instructional time by focusing on what counts the most,” Stephens said at the meeting.

Stephens also emphasized the ongoing student and family support available to the Berkeley community, including nutrition services, technology support, family support seminars and mental health services.

BUSD will be holding three additional town halls before the school year begins, with the following town hall meetings focusing on specific community groups.

Contact Alexandra Feldman at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @a_p_feldman.