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BUSD Community Divided Over Reopening at November 18 School Board Meeting

During public comment, students, parents, and teachers expressed how they’ve been struggling with distance learning.


The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board has been primarily focused on the possibility of Berkeley schools opening back up, but other issues, such as further work towards Black Lives Matter (BLM) resolutions and a new Transgender and Gender Nonconforming Student Policy proposition were also covered at the November 18 board meeting. That being said, the first public comment led to a perfervid discussion about the pros and cons of in-person schooling during the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Yvette Felarca, a humanities teacher at Martin Luther King Jr Middle School, said, “Another parent who worked in an ER said, ‘It’s like watching a slow-moving train wreck.’ ”

Felarca was one of many protesting the opening of three of Berkeley’s elementary schools, insisting that it was perilous to reinstate live instruction at this time. “It’s not safe, [parents] wouldn’t be sending their kids to the schools if the school district had provided more support for their children,” she said, in response to those arguing for reopening. 

Berkeley mother Kathy Otterson acknowledged Felarca, but provided an alternate perspective, saying, “I heard the teacher who said that a parent agreed with her picketing, and I don’t believe this represents parents. They’re watching their kids go into school while teachers or whoever that is are picketing them? Come on.” Otterson explained her frustration about the lack of action regarding high school reopening plans and the difficulties that come with having a younger child schooling online. 

Students also expressed their dismay about distance learning and feeling isolated and overworked. “It’s been really difficult to keep up with the workload, especially since content is going twice as fast in, you know, half the time,” said Associate Student Body President Spencer Paik. 

Other students agreed. “I’ve never even met any of my teachers or classmates. Distance learning does not work for me and many other kids across Berkeley,” said King Middle School student Dylan Dasgupta. Students appeared anxious to know the next steps towards the return to campus, and looked to the board for clarity.

In response to these concerns, Stephens said, “I connect to the pain that I hear represented by our families, by our educators, and by our community,” sharing his own experiences as a father. He later shared a presentation about the return to in-school learning, naming the target reopening date for Pre-K to second grade as January 13. Stephens explained different options for hybrid learning models, varying from online mornings and in-person afternoons to two full days a week on campus, or even interchanging “A & B” groups during the week.

In June, the board made a commitment to put a Black Lives Matter (BLM) resolution in place across the district. Stephens led the discussion providing the mandatory quarterly update, opening with a statement about the difficulties of the pandemic and how it has affected the implementation. He went on to name the school week of February 1 to February 5 as a district wide celebration of Black History Month. Stephens said, “The Director of Schools is working with principals to proactively plan specific activities and events.” The rest of the presentation showed resources accessible to families and educators related to the BLM resolution. The meeting closed out with plans for next steps, including the continuation of education on abolitionist teaching and planning around “Cultivating Genius” equity framework.

A new policy on transgender and gender nonconforming students has been in the works for a while, but was clearly articulated at this board meeting. The policy mandates appropriate pronoun use among faculty, privacy in records relating to sex assignment at birth or transitional details, the limitation of gender separated activities, and the right of students to use bathrooms that correctly align with their gender identity.