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Hundreds of Students Attend Distance Learning Town Hall

On December 3, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) held a town hall meeting to explain the administration’s plans for a possible phased reopening of Berkeley High School (BHS). Hundreds of students and their families were present at the meeting, and all were given the opportunity to provide input and ask questions about the implementation of a hybrid-learning instruction model. 

The town hall was organized and led by Superintendent Brent Stephens, who spoke for most of the meeting about BUSD’s plans for how and when to return to partial in-person instruction amid the COVID-19 pandemic. School Board Representative Miles Miller, speaking on behalf of BHS students, interjected throughout the meeting with questions and concerns about the district’s decision-making. 

“We understand the challenges that students are facing during this time,” Stephens said, delivering a prepared opening statement. “From sitting in front of screens for hours a day to missing out on vital in-person instruction, we know how hard this is.” 

Stephens began by explaining the current state of the COVID-19 pandemic within Berkeley and BUSD. He then fielded questions from students about the likelihood of a return to limited in-person instruction, and when they could expect that to happen. 

According to Stephens, BUSD had confirmed a total of four COVID-19 cases (among district employees working in-person) from the period of March to mid-November. But in the past two weeks alone, seven new cases had been reported among employees of the district. Stephens attributed this to the recent spike in confirmed COVID-19 cases, hospitalizations, and deaths at the national, state, and regional level. 

“Clearly, these are not ideal conditions for us to be returning to any amount of in-person instruction,” Stephens said. “We are currently in the ‘purple zone’ in terms of community spread, and so long as we remain there we will be unable to open any schools at any level.” 

Stephens also responded to confusion among some BHS families as to why local private schools had been able to reopen despite current pandemic conditions. He explained that some private schools were permitted to reopen because of their smaller student bodies, while Berkeley’s public schools were too large to do the same. 

Representative Miller asked whether BHS students within certain grades might be given priority to return to campus over other grades, adding that he believed freshmen and seniors were more eager for in-person social contact at school than sophomores and juniors. Stephens explained that staggering a return to in-person instruction by grade level would not be feasible, as this would give an unfair workload burden to certain teachers. 

“When we think about a hybrid-learning model, note that this will not entail five in-person school days a week — it would be two, at best,” Stephens said. “I can also safely say that a return to full in-person instruction, meaning five days a week, will not happen at any point for the duration of this school year.” 

Stephens concluded the meeting by revealing the results of monthly surveys conducted by BUSD on input from families on in-person instruction. According to Stephens, family and student responses to the survey indicated that support for a return to in-person schooling had fallen over time. In the summer, a majority of students and families expressed a desire to phase out of distance learning. By October, however, support for a transition had fallen to just over 40 percent. In the most recent survey, conducted in late November, less than 30 percent of families wanted to phase out of distance learning.

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