Berkeley school district to begin phased reopening of elementary schools

Photo of Oxford School
Brianna Luna/File
The Berkeley Unified School District board, with the exception of director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, approved Phases 1 and 1B of its reopening plan, which allow for small elementary school cohorts of eight students each on a voluntary basis for both students and staff beginning Oct. 21.

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Parents, employees and a teacher who has contracted COVID-19 twice debated the pros and cons of reopening Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, elementary schools during Wednesday’s school board meeting.

Superintendent Brent Stephens presented BUSD’s Phased Plan for Return to In-Person Learning and advocated moderation amid a difficult choice between education and community safety. Stephens also emphasized that schools will not be reopening Oct. 13, which he said had previously been miscommunicated in some outlets.

“All school reopening planning assumes that community transmission rates remain stable or continue to decline,” the presentation stated. “Because social distancing will be required, all School Reopening Plans assume the use of a ‘hybrid’ model in which only half of our students are present at one time.”

The board, with the exception of director Beatriz Leyva-Cutler, approved Phases 1 and 1B of the plan, which allow for small elementary school cohorts of eight students each on a voluntary basis for both students and staff beginning Oct. 21.

Phase 1B also allows for the expansion of these cohorts to 14 students, with a target date of Nov. 9. Throughout both phases, staff will be regularly tested for COVID-19, although students will not be regularly tested.

Board members also requested that more data and survey information be collected and presented at the next meeting, during which they expect to vote on Phases 2 and 2B, steps that would further expand the reopening of BUSD elementary schools.

“This is a really difficult and unique time to be making the decision about what the next year is going to be for our students and teachers. We’re really torn,” said board president Judy Appel during the meeting.

After the decision was made, several members of the public expressed concerns over this decision during both sections of public comment.

Yvette Felarca, a Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher, was against reopening and called the board’s decision “scandalous.”

Felarca alleged that reopening in the current pandemic situation would treat preschool, special education and English language learners as “guinea pigs” and increase the risk of transmission by children in the Berkeley community.

BUSD parent Lindsay Nofelt noted concerns regarding distance learning. According to Nofelt, it has “exacerbated” learning gaps among students, particularly regarding literacy.

Nofelt added that changes need to be made to fix this issue, even though it is more difficult during the pandemic.

Others, including Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School Principal Janet Levenson, argued against the reopening of BUSD schools. According to Meyer, while many teachers want to be back with their students, they also want to make sure it is safe for all before doing so.

“We all have the same goal here,” said BUSD Student Director Miles Miller during the meeting. “We all want our kids to have the best education possible and we all want to go back to school safely.”

Claire Daly is a schools and communities reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @DalyClaire13.