Berkeley school district discusses updates to phased reopening of schools

Photo of BUSD Reopening Presentation
BUSD Board of Education/Courtesy
BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens presented updates on a projected timeline of reopening schools and designing a hybrid learning model with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT. In a discussion of hybrid learning models for elementary schools, the school district and BFT agree on a model that implements distance learning in the morning and optional in-person learning in the afternoon, but they disagree on requiring COVID-19 testing for students.

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In light of rising COVID-19 cases across Alameda County, the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, board discussed updates to the phased reopening of local schools Wednesday.

The BUSD board responded to several public concerns during the meeting from parents and teachers about reopening schools amid the COVID-19 pandemic. BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens presented updates on the projected timeline of reopening schools and designing a hybrid learning model with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT. 

“We’re really hopeful that we are going to come together with our labor partners and move forward during this really challenging time,” said BUSD director Ana Vasudeo during the meeting. “There’s just a lot that we don’t know and our district staff is working as hard as they can to keep up with new announcements from the governor’s office and from our public health officials.”

Alameda County is currently in the purple tier of the state’s four-tiered COVID-19 risk system, which indicates a “widespread risk” of COVID-19, according to Stephens.

Stephens said if two COVID-19 metrics — case rates and test positivity rates — show trends of lowering to the red tier by Jan. 11, the local health officer might grant permission to reopen schools four to five weeks later by Feb. 16. Stephens added, however, this timeline is not “realistic” with the current COVID-19 conditions and estimates it will take several more weeks before any improvement occurs.

In a discussion of hybrid learning models for elementary schools, Stephens said the school district and BFT agree on a model that implements distance learning in the morning and optional in-person learning in the afternoon, but they disagree on requiring COVID-19 testing for students.

“BFT is asking that this be mandatory for all students,” Stephens said during the meeting. “But the district doesn’t want to see that school reopening is made contingent upon the availability of this COVID-19 testing. We don’t want to see it as a precondition, although we do think it’s very important.”

During public comment, BUSD special education teacher Sarah Bowles echoed Stephens’ concerns about requiring COVID-19 testing for students. According to Bowles, no student or teacher should be forced to get tested as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website says testing should only be “offered on a voluntary basis.”

Jonas LaMattery-Brownell, who teaches at the Berkeley Independent Study’s Herrick Hospital campus, argued against the school district’s efforts to reopen schools this spring altogether.

“I love my job, but I will never teach and will never speak up and act for anyone to ever learn or teach in any needlessly dangerous situation,” LaMattery-Brownell said during the meeting. “Daily new COVID-19 transmissions in our state, county and in Berkeley are far too high to justify any attempts soon or very likely before the end of the school year to engage in in-person school contact.”

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