Berkeley school board discusses phased reopening amid COVID-19 pandemic

Photo of Rosa Parks Elementary School
Karin Goh/File
Phase 1 of reopening will begin Nov. 9 with nine cohorts of eight students and one to two staff members. This program will expand with Phase 1B, beginning Nov. 30, which will increase cohorts to 12 to 14 students each. Cohorts will be located at Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Jefferson elementary schools.

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Update 11/6/2020: This article has been updated to include additional statements from the meeting.

Wednesday’s Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board meeting focused on the phased reopening of Berkeley elementary schools during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Phase 1 of reopening, titled Targeted Support for Elementary, will begin Nov. 9 with nine cohorts of eight students and one to two staff members. This program will expand with Phase 1B, beginning Nov. 30, which will increase cohorts to 12 to 14 students each.

“Public health does say that schools can reopen under safe conditions, and I want to kind of remind folks that it’s not a blanket approval from public health for schools just to open the doors and serve all students in the ways we normally do,” said board director Julie Sinai. “We still do have to abide by testing, contact tracing, social distancing.”

Cohorts will be located at Rosa Parks, Malcolm X and Jefferson elementary schools. Students were selected based on estimated need for in-person education, and both students and staff were given the choice of whether to switch to in-person instruction.

Adults present will include BUSD staff as well as new contractors from the Lawrence Hall of Science and Kids’ Village at Malcolm X and Rosa Parks, respectively.

The public comment sections of the meeting saw contentious debate among parents, students, teachers and staff regarding the reopening of schools.

Many parents offered anecdotes about their children’s social isolation, while others said reopening schools would be too dangerous for the community.

Merhatibeb Afework, a parent of two students, expressed concerns about reopening schools “prematurely,” particularly with the combined threat posed by flu season. He pointed out that the risk of COVID-19 contraction would be particularly dangerous for families such as his with three generations in one home.

Math teacher David Schroeder shared that two of his students have already suffered losses due to COVID-19 and cautioned against rushing to reopen.

“I know there’s a lot of emotion about trying to get everyone back into the classroom, trying to preserve quality social-emotional bonds between students, but please don’t do that at the cost of anyone’s life,” Schroeder said.

Mariam Al-Shawaf, another Berkeley teacher, expressed sympathy regarding the concerns of parents but argued that in-person learning would not actually be any more effective than virtual learning because teachers would be spending the majority of classroom time enforcing safety restrictions.

Teacher Yvette Felarca also emphasized the need for mandatory and repeated testing for all students and staff before any in-person instruction in Berkeley begins.

“There’s real harms being imposed on members of our community no matter what we do,” said Ty Alper, vice president of the school board. “There’s no good answers; we’re in the middle of a pandemic.”

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