Berkeley High School Cancelled to Limit the Spread of COVID-19

A news crew from NBC arrived at Berkeley High early in the morning.

Jerome Paulos

Chemistry teacher Sam Rozen opened his classroom so students could bring home materials to study.

Jerome Paulos

A hallway in the G Building that would usually be filled with students on their way to their next class is empty after BUSD decided to close Berkeley High.

Jerome Paulos

An empty stairwell in the G Building displays a mural commemorating Antonio Ramos, a 2006 Berkeley High graduate who was shot September 2015.

Jerome Paulos

A view of the campus green behind the C Building, a popular place for students to eat lunch.

Jerome Paulos

Jerome Paulos

Jerome Paulos

Jerome Paulos

Jerome Paulos

At 8:34 PM, on Thursday, March 12, Erin Schweng, Berkeley High School’s (BHS) principal, informed students of a three week district-wide school closure effective immediately. Schweng announced that BHS will close on Friday, March 13, while all of the other Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) schools will close on Monday, March 16.

This decision comes as the closing of schools across the nation has left roughly 4.9 million children out of school, as of March 12. COVID-19, or Coronavirus, is the cause of schools closing. The virus originated in December 2019 at an outdoor market in Wuhan, China, and has since spread rapidly across the world, infecting tens of thousands of people. On March 11, the World Health Organization declared Coronavirus a pandemic, which means it is a disease people do not have immunity to and it is spreading rapidly across the world, infecting thousands of individuals.

As of now, BUSD is set to resume Monday, April 6, when schools were scheduled to return from spring break, but this remains uncertain given the high infection rate of Coronavirus.

Prior to the announcement of closure, BHS administration sent numerous emails to students informing them of event cancellations and postponements, such as prom, the SAT exam scheduled for Saturday, March 14, sports games, and other large gatherings.

Rumors of a school closure circulated throughout the student body in the days leading up to the official decision, but no definitive announcement was made until Thursday night. Around 7 PM, many students saw a screenshot of a text conversation between the BUSD superintendent Dr. Brent Stephens and the BHS school board representative via social media. This screenshot seemed to confirm the closure. Although the legitimacy of the screenshot was unclear, many students were quick to believe that school was cancelled, and they began to wait for an official notice from BUSD. “I think BUSD has been fairly proactive, I still think communication has been faulty and schools should have been closed earlier, but they handled this well for the most part,” said Isadora De Liberty, a BHS junior.

County officials were hesitant to close schools without any confirmed cases connected to BUSD as many students rely on BHS resources, such as the free breakfast and lunch program. Kieran Sullivan, a junior, echoed these concerns. “One thing I worry about is childcare for kids in elementary school whose parents have to work,” he said. On March 6, Schweng sent an email to the entire student body that stated the district would take guidance from the Alameda County Public Health Department about when it would close, writing “school dismissal decisions must balance the potential benefits of protecting the school community and slowing the spread of disease with the potential societal disruption and impact.”

There are also complications that come with temporarily closing down an entire school district. BHS is planning to continue with an online curriculum for its students; however, this is contingent on student access to technology, and may not provide students with sufficient preparation for major college preparation exams. BHS staff will be meeting on Friday, March 13, to “prepare online learning options” as Schweng announced in her email. Valentina Sanchez, a junior in Academic Choice, is happy with how BUSD has handled the closure so far. “BUSD did a good job of understanding people’s struggles when it comes to getting [access to] food and computers,” she said.

At school on March 12, the virus and possible school closure dominated conversations. As fear heightened, students questioned their teachers about the possible school closure. Many teachers informed the students that BUSD was waiting for a recommendation from Alameda County Public Health Department to shut down the district. However, the district ended up acting without receiving an official recommendation to close schools. The lack of official recommendation could potentially impact the amount of funding the district receives, although such implications are currently unclear.

BUSD is one of many school districts that has ceased operation. Public schools across the entire states of Ohio, Maryland, Michigan, and New Mexico are closed. As of the evening of March 12, San Francisco, Piedmont and Contra Costa Unified School Districts also cancelled school for students until April 6. UC Berkeley also made a switch to online classes only early in the week, and other colleges across the United States have begun sending their students home in an attempt to contain the fast-spreading virus.

As of now, BHS students are waiting for information from teachers and administration. It is unclear what exactly online school will look like, and it will likely vary from teacher to teacher. Advanced Placement (AP) and International Baccalaureate (IB) tests, as well as upcoming standardized tests in the spring, have not escaped the minds of students. There are significant concerns about earning credit for the semester and preparing for such tests, particularly for students in programs such as the IB diploma. There have been no messages indicating that BHS graduation will be postponed or canceled.

As the virus continues its spread across the nation, one can only hope that drastic measures such as this one will protect communities from further widespread infection.