As plans to reopen schools continue to be debated throughout the Berkeley community, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Superintendent Brent Stephens hosted a virtual town hall Thursday to discuss current reopening plans with community stakeholders.
Stephens presented on the district’s progress and goals for the future. While numerous concerns were raised by BUSD community members on the speed of the reopening process, Stephens reiterated the district’s need to satisfy public health guidelines and work on preparation plans, including negotiations with the teachers’ union.
State school reopening guidelines detail that COVID-19 cases must fall beneath a rate of 25 cases per 100,000 residents for elementary schools to reopen and seven cases per 100,000 for middle and high schools. As of press time, the current county case rate is 18.1 cases per 100,000, which falls in the purple tier, making elementary reopening permissible.
“These metrics are showing a steady decline, which is good news from a public health perspective and really good news from a school reopening perspective,” Stephens said during the town hall.
With case rates in the threshold of allowing elementary schools to reopen, the board is in the process of reviewing facility preparedness. To promote health safety, physical adjustments need to be made in classrooms, in addition to health protocols such as portable air purifiers, sanitation materials and COVID-19 staff training, according to Stephens’ presentation.
Stephens added that collective bargaining and district preparedness go “hand in hand.” If any party disagrees during negotiations, an impasse can be declared, a scenario that could stall negotiations for months, according to Stephens.
“There is a democratic process that is codified by local union bylaws that can lead to reopening,” Stephens said during the town hall. “Every district is different. Every union is different. So, that’s why we are seeing differences across the whole state.”
Teachers have been bargaining “nonstop” with the district since last March, according to Berkeley Federation of Teachers, or BFT, President Matt Meyer. Meyer noted that union leadership signed a memorandum of understanding last fall that allows teachers to voluntarily teach in person.
Under the agreement, teachers are able to voluntarily work with students in person after the remote instruction part of the day, according to Meyer.
In another BFT proposal, Meyer added that on-site staff would transition to in-person instruction once all staff members are vaccinated. According to Stephens, the city of Berkeley entered Phase 1b of vaccination distribution Feb. 8, and the district is working with the city to plan a distribution event for teachers. However, at this time, a timeline is “difficult to establish.”
“It is really critical that we work together,” Stephens said during the town hall. “At this point, the final stretch, the partnership with the city with vaccinations, last of many steps.”