Berkeley schools prepare for in-person instruction amid pandemic

Photo of Daniel Esler
Joe Sison/Staff
Following a tentative agreement that was reached in February, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, is planning its process for reopening schools. Various members of the BUSD community have voiced both support and concerns on the developments.

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As students, teachers and parents continue to struggle with online learning during the COVID-19 pandemic, Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, is preparing to reopen its schools after an agreement was tentatively reached in February.

Students and teachers are voicing their support, thoughts and concerns on the developments as reopening looms near. The reopening process will begin with elementary schools in late March, followed by middle and high schools in April.

Ty Alper, BUSD Board of Education president, said in an email that there has been significant progress made in plans for elementary school students. He added that these plans will be shared early next week, and the district is continuing to work on plans for middle and high schools.

“Students have struggled with social isolation and in some cases, mental health trauma,” Alper said in an email. “Kids are social, and they need to be with each other.”

Alper added that the district has plans for COVID-19 testing and training for staff and students, as well as strict rules for wearing masks and reduced density on campuses. All staff will also have the opportunity to be vaccinated before returning to campus, according to Alper.

Miles Miller, Berkeley High School, or BHS, senior and BUSD school board student director, said although many of his teachers have been accommodating and generous in working with students, online learning has still been tough.

“One hour of online work is just as tiring to complete as two hours of regular in-school work that we would’ve done,” Miller said. “Everything is just twice as hard to do — twice as hard to bring yourself to do — whether it’s doing that math homework, or studying or staying focused. Everything’s in disarray.”

Miller said he has been talking with students to figure out how to best meet their needs during this time.

Many want more one-on-one time with teachers and more socialization, according to Miller.

“We want to provide a space for clubs to meet after school so they can continue their activism and work,” Miller said. “We want to provide a space for students to study together and do homework.”

One possible solution was using the football field as a student space and drawing circles to create safe distances to stay at, Miller noted.

According to Miller, moving forward, he believes students will feel more grateful and excited to go to school and feel more appreciative toward teachers. Miller, however, also said as students go back to school, many will probably feel burnt out as they resume their normal schedules.

BHS senior Daniel Esler said his online learning experience during the pandemic has generally been positive and said he is in favor of delaying reopening, as there are only a few months left in the school year.

“Kids are generally happy to sacrifice high school and aren’t overeager to restart and try and claim the last month or two months we have left for the sake of safety and getting past the pandemic,” Esler said.

Dan Plonsey, a BHS math teacher and representative for the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, echoed similar sentiments. He said many of his colleagues are questioning whether it is worth it to go back for such a short period of time.

Plonsey added that he really enjoys seeing students work together, but due to the pandemic, the collaborative environment will not exist for some time.

“The whole joy of teaching is strolling through a classroom talking with students … the pleasure of seeing one student help another and be generous, patient and kind,” Plonsey said. “That’s been an adjustment, just coming to terms that we don’t have that.”

Esler also noted the different scheduling system that BHS has been using since fall 2020.

The schedule splits up each semester into four terms, totaling eight terms throughout the year. The terms last about a month each, which allows students to take three classes at a time.

“It’s been really nice to only have to focus on taking three classes,” Esler said. “It’s just been a challenge having advanced courses where that disruption in the learning cycle makes it really hard to build on new concepts.”

Plonsey said the new schedule has largely been approved, and he added that he has enjoyed only having to teach two or three classes at a time, which allows him to give more feedback and talk to students more.

In the past year, there have also been some positive changes due to online learning, according to Plonsey. Attendance, as well as homework completion, have increased, and there has been less cheating, according to Plonsey.

However, Plonsey noted that despite best efforts, all teachers have had some students who have just “disappeared” during the pandemic and are absent from school.

Plonsey hopes that the pandemic has helped people see some of the large systemic inequities and problems that society is facing, and he prompted people to do something about it.

“We may emerge from this into a more sensitive, more caring, more willing to experiment, more open,” Plonsey said. “There’s a lot of needed change still, but I’m positive about the long term.”

Contact Mela Seyoum at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @melaseyoum.