On October 1, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Brent Stephens issued a statement notifying families that the district is developing a plan for a “phased reopening” of elementary schools.
After daily COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations due to COVID-19 were reported to be decreasing in Berkeley, the Alameda County Public Health Department released an order allowing for the reopening of elementary schools. Berkeley, the only city in Alameda County with its own public health department, updated its shelter-in-place order to allow for the reopening of schools as early as October 13.
However, being allowed to open schools does not mean BUSD will start in-person learning immediately. The first phase of reopening won’t happen until October 26, and even then, the return to in-person schooling will only include priority-based cohorts, who are groups of students who have struggled with distance learning.
“These small, prioritized student cohorts will allow students facing considerable learning challenges to have the support they need to overcome the learning gaps they’ve experienced during distance learning,” Stephens said.
For students in elementary school, a return to class may be a welcome relief. According to Daniela DeVasquez, a licensed clinical psychologist with a specialty in working with children and their families, many children are suffering from a loss of routine.
“The kids that are having the most difficulty are kids that in their structure need the consistency, the structure, the schedule,” DeVasquez said. “They need the changing of ambiance and environment of going to school, going outside, going home,” she explained.
According to DeVasquez, this loss of a schedule is causing many elementary students to lose their motivation and love of learning. The negative impact can also be more serious. The psychiatric emergency room has seen a flood of kids in recent months, revealing an uptick that coincides with the start of distance learning.
“We have been busy, us psychologists,” she joked.
However, the need for kids to return to school must be weighed against the possibility of spreading COVID-19 among students and to the community at large.
“Some teachers are eager to return. Some teachers are terrified and reluctant. Most teachers are somewhere in-between: eager return to school to teach their students, but justifiably concerned about how everyone will stay safe,” said Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, at a recent school board meeting. “And all teachers know we need to take the time to get this right,” he added.
To ensure that reopening happens safely, the city and county mandated that schools must submit a plan to the health department first. If the plan is approved, and the school opens, the school will be monitored to make sure all the guidelines in the plan are being followed. If this is not the case, the school will be required to fill out a correctional plan. In addition to these countywide procedures, the City of Berkeley has outlined its own measures that schools must take before they reopen.
The most notable of these are the testing procedures, which require all staff to be tested for COVID-19 at least on a monthly basis and recommend bi-weekly basis. This aspect of the order may prove the most difficult to implement and is currently only at 25 percent capacity. BUSD predicts that it will not be at 100 percent testing capacity until November 2, 12 days after the first schools are open for smaller cohorts.
The district aims to open all elementary schools on December 2, although the date is still being finalized. Based on the success of the phased reopening of elementary schools, the city will decide whether to open middle and high schools. According to Miles Miller, BUSD student director, the district is not currently planning a return to middle or high schools, although they are implementing handwashing stations and other improvements necessary for reopening.
The school board will return on October 21 to continue discussion on this topic.