Berkeley town hall meeting discusses reopening of local schools

Photo of Jesse Arreguin at a city council meeting
Vanessa Lim/File
The timeline for reopening schools is expected to be pushed back several weeks due to the high positive COVID-19 test and transmission rates that prompted the stay-at-home order. Once these indicators decline, elementary schools are set to reopen, and middle and high schools are set to follow after.

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Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín and Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Superintendent Brent Stephens discussed the reopening of local schools in light of the regional stay-at-home order at a virtual town hall Monday.

Arreguín and Stephens addressed several questions from Berkeley community members regarding the timeline of reopening schools, which is expected to be pushed back several weeks due to the stay-at-home order. They also discussed the potential for hybrid learning and teacher vaccinations. Arreguín emphasized the city’s commitment to opening schools as soon as regional health orders deem it permissible.

“By following the stay-at-home order and working to keep the community spread low, we can get out of these restrictions and be able to reopen more of our sectors,” Arreguín said at the event. “Our top priority in terms of which sectors to reopen are schools.”

In October, the BUSD Board of Education established a timeline for reopening schools. The targeted dates for reopening were Jan. 13 for prekindergarten through second grade levels and Jan. 20 for third through fifth grade levels, according to Stephens. 

These dates, however, are expected to be delayed by five weeks due to high positive COVID-19 test and transmission rates — two key COVID-19 indicators that prompted the stay-at-home order, Stephens added.

Elementary schools will be on track to reopen once these indicators decline, and middle and high schools are set to follow after, Stephens said at the event. The school district is currently undertaking several tasks to prepare schools for their eventual reopening, including the preparation of school facilities, the development of an employee COVID-19 testing program and COVID-19 training resources for students and staff, according to Stephens.

“The precise date of reopening right now is unknown to all of us,” Stephens said at the event. “So much is now in our hands, our collective goodwill and our collective effort to suppress the transmission of COVID-19.”

During the discussion of hybrid learning, Stephens said BUSD proposed splitting the school day in half by having distanced learning in the morning and optional in-person learning in the afternoon once in-person learning resumes. BUSD is still contemplating hybrid options with its unions, Stephens added.

Prioritizing vaccinations for teachers was another topic of discussion. While it would significantly help schools reopen safely and quickly, Arreguín said it is ultimately up to the state to decide how soon teachers can receive vaccinations.

Arreguín said adhering to the stay-at-home order is the first step before any reopening of schools can occur.

“I just want to emphasize the importance of getting through these next few weeks, especially the holiday season,” Arreguín said at the event. “It will not only enable us to reopen our school safely but also reopen our community safely.”

Contact Annika Kim Constantino at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @AnnikaKimC.