BUSD talks COVID-19 staffing needs, keeping students in school

photo of Berkeley High School
Giselle Reyes/File
The Berkeley Unified School District's Board of Education held a meeting Wednesday in which it considered and discussed budget adjustments in an effort to accommodate staff and students as positive COVID-19 cases affect in-person learning.

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Amid efforts to safely keep students in school, the Berkeley Unified School District’s Board of Education discussed new staffing needs and budget plans at its meeting Wednesday.

Board members discussed the district’s use of modified quarantine, or quarantine recommendations that allow some students who are exposed to COVID-19 to continue in-person instruction after complying to rigorous protocols. However, the meeting addressed the need to hire more staff in the district to accommodate for the increased amount of work that comes with modified quarantine.

“Much of the work of running the school has taken a backseat to complying with the health guidance to keep students in school and not on a 10-day quarantine,” Berkeley Federation of Teachers president Matt Meyer said during the meeting. “Eventually … the ability to lead a site will be compromised because an admin will not be physically and mentally available.”

Modified quarantine has allowed the district to keep large numbers of students in school despite recent COVID-19 cases.

For example, 21 COVID-19 cases were reported from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 across BUSD schools, but 423 students were able to continue in-person instruction under modified quarantine as of Sept. 8 and only 12 were required to quarantine at home. 

“Many districts just don’t have the bandwidth to do the work that we’re doing and are sending lots of students home for 10 days,” BUSD director Ana Vasedeo said during the meeting. “I’m proud of the fact that we organized this huge operation.”

Meyer noted that letting students stay in school under modified quarantine instead of home quarantine requires extensive tracking and testing. The district has around three to five positive cases a day, and each takes staff around eight hours to contact trace, Meyer added. 

Meyer emphasized the need for more support staff, such as full-time substitute teachers assigned to each district, to ease the burden of work needed to put students under modified quarantine. The district plans on increasing substitutes’ compensation up to $225 per day, hiring 10 roving substitutes and adding other COVID-19 support staff, according to a presentation by assistant superintendent Pauline Follansbee.

During the meeting, the board also approved a one-time maximum transfer of $2.3 million from Fund 20, a special reserve fund for post-employment benefits, for COVID response expenses. While the district received around $16 million in COVID-19 funding, more funds are still required for critical educational programs, staff expansions and contact tracing operations.

“(That) money, while they seem really significant, have been spread across multiple needs for a very long time,” BUSD superintendent Brent Stephens said during the meeting. “We are now drawing down that balance to zero and starting to dip into our own district funds to be able to continue to meet these ongoing needs.”

Cindy Liu is an academics and administration reporter. Contact her at [email protected], and follow her on Twitter at @_CindyLiu_.