Berkeley school district board discusses staff vaccine mandate, pandemic policy

Photo of the BUSD headquarters
Eran Kohen Behar/Staff
At its Wednesday meeting, the Berkeley Unified School District's Board of Education discussed a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate and heard information on the district's fiscal health.

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Members of the Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Board of Education discussed the potential alleviation of health measures and a proposed COVID-19 vaccine mandate for staff at their regular meeting Wednesday.

Superintendent Brent Stephens announced at the meeting a proposed policy that would require BUSD employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 — defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as without a booster — or receive a valid medical or belief-based exemption. The proposal follows December’s announcement of a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for students.

The district would be able to replace noncompliant staff over the summer under the proposed policy, avoiding potential staffing shortages caused by unpreparedness for state action, according to Stephens. Approximately 70 district employees are currently unvaccinated, he added.

“It’s very likely that the state is going to mandate staff vaccinations in the fall, and the idea here is for us to get out ahead of that,” said board member Ty Alper at the meeting. “It’s designed to make sure that we know how many vacancies we may have.”

While board member Julie Sinai supported the vaccine requirement, Sinai also held reservations over the lack of a booster shot requirement. Alper noted the lack of a booster was to avoid complicating the enforcement timeline.

The board also discussed the possibility of removing some COVID-19 restrictions, including removing outdoor masking requirements, easing restrictions on certain field trips and relieving volunteers and staff of pandemic-mitigation work, according to BUSD spokesperson Trish McDermott.

Alper said at the meeting that many of the changes should be implemented “now to soon,” citing instructional tradeoffs and the hope of a “semblance of normalcy.” Both board members Ana Vasudeo and Sinai, however, questioned the relaxation of some measures due to the continuing danger of the pandemic.

“The case rates are still exponentially higher than they ever were during Delta,” Sinai said at the meeting. “I’m in the camp of sooner, but not now.”

Board members also heard information on the district’s fiscal health.

Assistant Superintendent of Business Services Pauline Follansbee described California Gov. Gavin Newsom’s proposed budget as “very healthy” for the district. According to the agenda, the budget changes would increase the district’s general fund by $6.4 million.

Even with this revenue, new expenses will still necessitate budget reductions, Stephens noted.

Stephens also informed the board of an African American Success Framework, which launched last week to “positive feedback.” The board members offered Black History Month greetings, with President Ka’Dijah Brown applauding activities such as the Black Lives Matter (At School) campaign.

“At Berkeley Unified School District, we honor the contributions of Black and African American people,” Brown said at the meeting. “I am super excited about all of the Black History Month celebrations that are happening throughout our school district.”

Gabe Classon is a schools and communities reporter. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter at @gabeclasson.