On Wednesday, October 21, Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) school board approved January 13 as a target date for the first phase of the plan to reopen elementary schools.
“We can go forward [with the plan] and then come back, but if we don’t go forward at all, then we’re just stuck,” said Student Director Miles Miller. “We are not going to start on [January 13] unless the community really wants to and it looks like things are going well. In the meantime, BUSD will start preparing and laying out the hybrid model between on-campus and distance learning,” he explained.
The district hopes to have a few cohorts of around eight elementary-aged students who need more support with technology or mental health to partake in in-person learning. Volunteers including classroom teachers, after school teachers, and special-assignment instructors will provide in-person facilitation and assistance to navigate online education. Slowly, the cohorts will expand to include more students, in hopes of eventually integrating most or all kids back to school. The plan aims to integrate all kindergarten through second graders into some version of in-person learning.
At the meeting, Hannah Kessel, a teacher at Washington Elementary, expressed concern about other issues schools will face once returning to in-person instruction. In regard to the COVID-19 risk, she said that teachers of younger students may have trouble properly maintaining a safe learning environment without making physical contact with students.
“For example, if students are pushing in line, or if a student is using scissors in an unsafe way, the teacher needs to be [… ] in proximity to redirect them,” explained Kessel. She added that children need social and emotional care that teachers would not be able to provide from a physical distance. “So much communication is non-verbal at this stage of development. Without physical proximity or contact, their social and emotional needs would not be met,” Kessel said.
For the first phase of the plan, the school board decided that only students who choose to attend school in-person will return. Only four of eleven elementary schools will open: Jefferson, Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and the new Oxford site at West Campus. At the meeting, Miller asked if only students from these four schools would be able to join a cohort or if any student in need of extra support would be able to partake. Superintendent Brent Stephens responded, “Our current thinking is that we would like to restrict membership in these cohorts to the students who attend only these four schools, again with the idea that as more staff volunteer to do this work that we would be able to expand to additional campuses.”
One BUSD parent stated, “We live in a multi-generational household with my mother, so I have to be really careful with how much exposure to large groups the kids get.” Only teachers who consent to in-person instruction will do so, while the rest will most likely be paired up with students who are also learning remotely.
Teacher Yvette Felarca of Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School voiced her concern about returning to school, emphasizing the need for mass testing and calling on the board to further postpone reopening.
Board member Ka’Dijah Brown questioned why BUSD chose to start out with just eight students per cohort when they are permitted to start out with fourteen. Stephens explained that by beginning with eight students in every cohort and adding up to six more, Berkeley hopes to build the community’s confidence in on-campus learning and better adapt students to the classroom environment. He added that volunteers would be more willing to return knowing they are only starting out with eight students at a time.
Though the state hasn’t allowed all schools to fully reopen yet, Miller wants middle and high schoolers to advocate for their schools to start making plans to return. He hopes teenagers will say, “What about us?” and ask that preparations for reopening all schools be on the forefront of conversation about the future.
Miller emphasized that Berkeley must find the most efficient way to support every student and family in this crisis.