On Wednesday, Berkeley health officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez announced plans to give Alameda County middle schools and high schools the option to return to in-person classrooms starting the week of Nov. 9.
Alameda County has moved into the orange tier of the state’s four-tiered COVID-19 risk system as of Oct. 13, and the tier indicates that the city is at a “moderate” risk of COVID-19, according to city spokesperson Matthai Chakko.
The low spread of cases prompted Hernandez’s decision to permit the reopening of middle schools and high schools; however, it is ultimately up to the schools to decide whether or not they can open safely, Chakko added.
“There are very real concerns about the socio-emotional and educational health of students, and that has to be weighed against the risk of spread,” Chakko said. “Some middle and high schools have been preparing for eight months to open, so if they are able to meet requirements to open safely in November, they can.”
The requirements that all schools must meet to reopen include COVID-19 screening for all staff and volunteers at least once a month and adhering to social distancing guidelines by implementing hybrid school schedules, according to the city’s website.
The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board has approved phased reopenings of elementary schools beginning Nov. 9 that developed safety modifications to meet these requirements, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott. She added, however, that middle schools and high schools may not be prepared to meet the requirements by then.
“Unlike elementary schools, middle and high schools require more complex COVID-19 safety modifications that have not been approved or developed yet,” McDermott said. “This is due to the nature of these older students needing to switch between teachers for every subject rather than remaining in one stable bubble like younger students.”
Parents of students remain divided regarding the reopening of schools and in-person classes for their children, according to Robert Collier, president of the Berkeley PTA Council. Some parents expressed wanting their kids to return to school as soon as possible, while others wanted to delay the reopening of schools until “a vaccine is widely available,” Collier said in an email.
While middle schools and high schools may not be able to reopen in November, the city’s health department and BUSD are working toward restoring normalcy in all schools, according to McDermott.
“The district understands the learning loss that can occur due to distance learning,” McDermott said. “Ideally, we would want to have our students back in the classroom for aspects of learning like the social and emotional interaction and the building of relationships with their peers. It’s our goal to make that happen as soon as we can in compliance with the health orders.”