Berkeley school district should direct plans for reopening toward those most in need

CITY AFFAIRS: With safe, prompt return to classrooms unlikely for all students, struggling families should take priority

Illustration of a person working on schoolwork remotely, watching a small group of students outside their window enter a school building
Jericho Tang/Staff

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Disagreements over when schools should resume in-person learning — and under what circumstances — have been simmering since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Recently, it seems they’ve hit a boiling point.

For weeks, families in Berkeley and across the Bay Area have been organizing public demonstrations protesting school closures. A lawsuit filed by San Francisco against its own school district demanding it reopen demonstrates just how high tensions have flared.

But this infighting is counterproductive. Forcing a complex reopening process will only strain and detract from sincere, timely attempts at compromise, especially when all parties are working toward the same goal. 

We applaud the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, and the city of Berkeley for avoiding such antagonism and for remaining transparent. It’s important to work collaboratively to ensure the concerns of everyone involved are respected.

Still, the question remains: When, and in what form, should Berkeley schools reopen?

Despite claims — including from CA Gov. Gavin Newsom — that schools can reopen without vaccinating all teachers and staff, doing so seems unwise. Just a couple of days after launching hybrid learning, a school district in San Diego was forced to quarantine more than 100 students and teachers due to potential exposure to COVID-19. 

If safety is to remain a priority, any reopening timelines that purport to have all students back in school prior to achieving total vaccination of students and teachers are misleading. 

That being said, we cannot forget that returning to in-person education remains vitally important for certain students and families.

Despite attempts by BUSD to accommodate student needs, many special education students in Berkeley have reportedly struggled with lacking support and resources in an online setting. Returning to school means resuming the prompt and focused attention these students require. 

The pandemic has also exposed and deepened the chasm between families who can afford to supplement online learning with private tutors and families who can do no such thing. In many cases, working parents, and mothers in particular, have been forced to pick up the slack themselves — an unsustainable stopgap. For these families, returning to in-person school is also an urgent necessity. 

Rather than bringing back students according to grade level, BUSD should develop a more targeted reopening that solely prioritizes students and families most in need of return. Meanwhile, those who have adapted readily to distanced learning mustn’t be prematurely rushed back to the classroom. Similar phased strategies have already been implemented by other schools in California with reported success.

At this moment, equity must take priority over equality. To meet the needs of struggling students and families while keeping the Berkeley community safe, BUSD must direct its efforts where they’re needed most.

Editorials represent the majority opinion of the editorial board as written by the spring 2021 opinion editor, Jericho Rajninger.