On Wednesday, September 3, the Berkeley School Board met to review policies, guidelines, and proposals designed to mitigate the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic on education in Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD). The dialogue primarily focused on coronavirus response updates, but also covered construction of power lines near schools, equitability of new tutoring policies, and possible partnerships between BUSD and the city.
The board members updated the community on the surge of new school reopening guidelines from the state, county, and city public health departments. On August 28, California Governor Gavin Newsom passed legislation that replaced the coronavirus monitoring list with a color-coded, four-tiered system corresponding to the density of cases. For school districts to apply to reopen, the county needs to be in the “red” range for a minimum of 14 days.
Schools in the “purple” range, which include BUSD, cannot reopen for in-person instruction unless they have completed a questionnaire by September 11, which would indicate their interest in beginning to open elementary schools through a TK-6 waiver.
“We will essentially have to demonstrate… that we have significant capacities in a number of key areas,” said BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens. These areas include health screening, contact tracing, and other monitoring programs.
Stephens indicated that the decision for Berkeley schools to apply for TK-6 in-person learning is still under consideration.
The state of California announced additional guidelines for how schools should safely return to in-person learning. Schools must establish specific COVID-19 prevention plans for their campuses, enforce mask usage (for third grade and above), and monitor staff and student symptoms, among other requirements.
After providing the community with an overview of the new guidelines and their implications for Berkeley schools, Professional Development Coordinator Michelle Sinclair introduced a Learning Continuity and Attendance Plan. Although the overall plan received support from the school board, School Board Director Ka’Dijah Brown expressed concerns about the budget allocated for the installation of handwashing stations. “I think my concern is just the price tag in general,” Brown explained.
As of now, nine million dollars have been set aside for handwashing stations in all classrooms and common areas when in-person instruction returns. This money is part of Measure G, a $380 million bond designated for facilities, meaning that it cannot be moved to other parts of the budget. While the money cannot be used to improve teacher salaries or develop curriculum, it could be moved to improve other school facilities.
Some of the design work for the units is already underway, but given that no constructional commitment has been made, the school board is considering moving to rescind or hold the decision.
“I would like to know what other districts are doing… There could be a balance of sanitizer with a fewer number of temporary water stations,” School Board Director Julie Sinai proposed. “If we absolutely have to do it, that’s one thing, but if there are alternatives that we could explore I would like us to do a deeper dive,” she explained.
The board did not make any final decisions regarding the handwashing stations at the meeting.
During the public comment section of the meeting, many speakers addressed the transportation protocol for textbook pickup at Berkeley High School (BHS). Currently, curbside pickup for textbooks is restricted to students who have access to cars, and those who are unable to adhere to the guidelines must follow a separate process for obtaining school materials.
Community members voiced concerns that the protocol creates unnecessary barriers for transit-dependent families. With equity at the forefront of public policy, many feel that these issues need to be addressed immediately.
Ana Vasudeo, an active Berkeley Parents Teachers Association member, argued that the car-only system has no public health justifications and isn’t consistent with the more lenient protocols of neighboring school districts. Others pointed out that the protocol encourages car usage during a time when air quality is already compromised.
The school board was generally sympathetic to these concerns, and thanked the community for their input.