Berkeley community members express concerns over reopening schools

Berkeley High School
Daniela Cervantes/File
As Alameda County has moved into the purple tier for COVID-19, Berkeley Unified School District will not be permitted to open middle schools and high schools.

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On Wednesday, civil rights organization By Any Means Necessary, or BAMN, will continue speaking against the reopening of Berkeley schools during the Berkeley school board meeting.

For the past week, BAMN has been holding pickets to provide community members with information on the risks of reopening schools, according to BAMN organizer Yvette Felarca. Berkeley parents and teachers have also expressed concerns about the district’s phased approach toward reopening.

“Children’s lives are at stake as well as the lives and safety of families and the community in general,” Felarca said. “We want to let people know that we’re fighting and encourage them to join us to fight for more resources for families and children.”

According to Felarca, the district’s Phase 1 of reopening with cohorts of eight students could still be “dangerous.” Some children who contract COVID-19 may be asymptomatic and social distancing practices will be hard to reinforce, Felarca added.

Berkeley parent Leul Afework echoed Felarca’s sentiment, expressing his concern that there has not been enough extensive testing.

“I’m really apprehensive to send my kids and other kids to school,” Afework said. “I’m not sure what the method is of bringing kids back to school. I want science to answer this; I do not want politics and economics interfering with our science.”

In an attempt to address these safety concerns, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, has implemented a comprehensive elementary school campus safety plan developed with public health guidance, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott.

This safety plan includes guidelines for staff and student screening of COVID-19 symptoms, cohort separation and social distancing, McDermott added.

“I was at two of the three schools observing the process and it went well,” McDermott said in an email. “It was encouraging to hear their happy voices as they played on the play structures–which were divided by cohorts to prevent cohort mixing.”

As Alameda County has moved into the purple tier, the district will not be permitted to open middle schools and high schools, according to McDermott. Over the next few weeks, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens will also be hosting a series of town halls to discuss hybrid models of learning to address students’ learning loss and emotional well-being.

Despite these measures, however, Berkeley kindergarten teacher Hannah Margulis-Kessel said the hybrid model may still allow the airborne virus to dissipate between cohorts of children.

“It’s not enough. Five-year-olds touch their faces constantly; there’s no way that they’re keeping masks on,” Margulis-Kessel said. “This is just one example of a checkmark the Alameda County has, but these standards are too low as far as preventing spread.”

Margulis-Kessel added that 5-year-olds are like “magnets” who love to interact and learn kinesthetically and therefore cannot physically distance.

To better address the needs of vulnerable communities and children with special needs, both Felarca and Margulis-Kessel hope the district can provide more resources to improve remote learning.

“Schools reopening go hand-in-hand with surges in community spread,” Felarca said. “It’s incumbent on the community to unite together and fight for families.”

Contact Zoe Chen at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @zoe_chen820.