On December 5, Berkeley parents and students gathered at MLK Civic Center Park to protest the continued closure of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) schools. The event began at 10 AM as participants used poster board and markers to make signs, including slogans such as, “I want to meet my teacher,” “Distance learning is far from learning,” and “If it’s good enough for Newsom it’s good enough for us,” referencing the fact that the California Governor’s four children have returned to the classroom.
Lei Levi, a parent of a first grader at Rosa Parks Elementary, led the event. In her speech she said, “We need our kids in school, we want it to be done safely, we want to open up the conversation, so that we can actually have a collaborative effort in this.” She elaborated on these goals and said, “Hopefully we can create an opt-in, opt-out, where the students and the teachers who want to opt in to in-person learning can. And the students and teachers who want to stay with distance learning can do that as well.” The logistics of this proposed plan remain unclear. Levi concluded her speech by sending a message to the school district. “We are all watching, and we know the data, and we are no longer accepting their inaction,” she said.
Several scheduled speakers appeared as well, including school board member Laura Babitt and Dr. Jeanne Noble, director of the COVID-19 response team at the University of California, San Francisco (UCSF). Babitt said, “As your elected official, please know that I not only hear you, but I firmly believe we can do something about it. We can safely reopen our schools.” Noble made her points by referencing data from Europe. “In Spain, they found that [COVID-19] transmission in the communities decreased when they opened their schools, possibly because kids were then well-supervised, and masked.” In New York, she said, “the number of people infected with [COVID-19] in the school system was far less than the surrounding New York communities.” And in Marin County, “there has been exactly two cases of campus-based [COVID-19] transmission. That is two cases of [COVID-19] that would not have happened if those forty thousand students and five thousand teachers had not congregated on campus.” Finally, Noble asked the crowd, “Is that worth the risk?” The crowd responded with affirmative yelling and clapping.
Several parents present in the crowd of around eighty people echoed these sentiments. Rob Schwartz, parent of a first grader at Berkeley Arts Magnet, said “It’s just an extremely poor substitute for in-person instruction, it’s kind of like fake school, and it’s not serving the kids.” Berkeley High School (BHS) parent Deborah Nelson said, “The problem with closed schools for this long is the widening achievement gap, learning loss, and then mental health.” She said, “[BUSD] had the opportunity to reopen a month ago, or more, and should have taken that opportunity.” Members of the protest expressed their frustration with the most recent proposed hybrid learning plan. Schwartz said, “They’re talking about like twice a week, bringing them back for two hours, [it] is a terrible plan … It’s a total failure, it doesn’t work for anyone.” He added, “Despite the fact that I totally want [my daughter] back in school, I wouldn’t send her to that, because it just wouldn’t be worth it.”
Several students spoke on this issue as well. Dylan, a sixth grader at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School, related her struggle with distance learning to the fact that the pandemic has occurred during her transition from elementary school to middle school. She said, “I’ve never even been to my school.” Shoshana, a fourth grader at Jefferson Elementary School, explained that it is difficult for her to engage in distance learning. She said, “Every day, I am always thinking that my teachers are trying so hard to make it fun, they always make it fun at school, and even though they’re trying, it’s not working.” Students also spoke about the impacts of the decreased socialization that comes with remote learning. Dylan said, “I am sitting at a screen for four hours a day, and then doing an hour of homework, which is not good for my mental health.”
Levi concluded the rally by saying, “We all need to stand up for what we think is right, and what is right is our kids need to be in school.” This was followed by a small group of parents announcing that they would be marching around Berkeley to continue the protest.