Nearly two dozen community members signed up to speak during Wednesday night’s Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, school board meeting, many of them voicing concerns about the status of the district’s virtual learning academy.
The district established the virtual academy fall 2021. The virtual academy teaches students K-5 with three teachers and one special education teacher, along with additional support, according to BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens. Initially, 50 to 60 students attended the virtual academy, but that number has since waned to about 20 now that vaccinations are available to many elementary-aged students, Stephens added.
Ann Song, a parent of a first-grader and a sixth-grader enrolled in the Berkeley Independent Study program, expressed the need for the virtual learning academy to continue into the next academic school year.
“In-person education is essential for most, and it doesn’t meet the needs of all families such as my multigenerational household with medically fragile members,” Song said during the meeting. “COVID continues to be a serious threat. It’s imperative that a decision is made to continue this necessary program as soon as possible.”
Stephens acknowledged community members’ concerns, but explained that funding is an obstacle to extending the virtual learning academy into the next school year.
This school year, the district used COVID-19 funding for the $450,000 program. Stephens said at the meeting that another revenue source would have to be found for next year.
“We have these conversations in front of us,” Stephens said during the meeting. “We’ll have to do some, I think all of us, careful consideration of the overall budget priorities as we move into next year.”
Stephens and BUSD Associate Superintendent for Educational Services Rubén Aurelio also asked the board for feedback on creating a strategic planning process, which would improve the pacing of initiatives, improve clarity about goals and measures, increase coherence across departments and give a clearer direction to schools. If approved, the first phase of the strategic plan would begin this June and end around March 2023.
Board director Ana Vasudeo voiced support for the strategic plan.
“I’m personally really excited by this project,” Vasudeo said during the meeting. “It’s very needed in our district … In the time of a pandemic, we haven’t had time to breathe. We’ve been just reacting to the next thing.”
Board director Julie Sinai, however, expressed reservations about introducing another “grandiose plan.” Instead, Sinai pointed to utilizing the Local Control and Accountability Plan to help the district identify priorities.
Laura Babitt, board vice president, also had concerns about exhausting community members with another strategic plan.
“We’re tapping into the community a lot already,” Babitt said during the meeting. “And all I keep hearing is ‘When you gonna do something though? You always come in and ask us, but what are you going to actually do?’”
Board members agreed to delay moving forward with the strategic plan and will continue to discuss it.