Since the November 9 small-scale reopening of multiple Berkeley elementary schools, ongoing protests organized by Equal Opportunity Now/By Any Means Necessary (EON/BAMN) have taken place at both Rosa Parks and Jefferson schools. EON/BAMN is an affiliated caucus with the nationwide organization BAMN that specifically works in national teachers’ unions.
Berkeley’s teachers union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), described the events of the first protest — on November 9 at Rosa Parks — in an email to the school’s community. “[Protesters] carried posters that said “children + schools = dead children”, chanted that the children were guinea pigs and tried to pass out fliers that showed pictures of children with their eyes crossed out” read the email.
72 students attended Rosa Parks, Jefferson, and Malcolm X elementary schools on November 9, the first day that any Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) students had returned to school since March. This was the first step of a long reopening plan, with a full return for all elementary schools scheduled for mid-January.
Only students who were identified as benefiting the most from in-person instruction returned to school. No teachers returned, instead, students are attending their regular distance learning from school campuses, with after-care staff present to assist them.
In an open letter to the BFT executive board, Yvette Felarca, Chair of BAMN in the Bay Area as well as a member of the executive board, expressed her support for the protests. Additionally, she called on the rest of the board to fight for the various demands she listed.
Felarca’s demands include mandatory COVID-19 testing for teachers, students, and staff, as well as more academic and technical support for students at home. She also asked for economic relief for families, to prevent them from making “impossible choices that set them and the children up to risk infection.”
Although the exact identity of all the protesters remains unknown, BFT responded to the incident in an email to the Rosa Parks community, stating that it was not clear that the protesters work in BUSD, despite their claims to be from the union.
The union denounced the protests in the same email and said, “We’ve devoted our entire careers to creating positive environments for children and are appalled that protesters would try to frighten them on their way into school.”
Felarca’s demands are rooted in the stark racial and ethnic divide of the students returning to school. The majority of students who returned on November 9 were from Black and Latinx families, who have been disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Lisa Billings, a teacher and BFT representative at Rosa Parks, also sees this as an issue, but said that “regardless of the demographics families are capable and caregivers are capable of making intelligent and well-informed decisions.”
Billings, whose son was also one of the approximately 12 students who returned to Rosa Parks, said that while she does not think the protests have had any critical effects on families returning to school, it has been a challenge for them.
“The adults are doing our best to make it a comfortable situation for the kids and keep a positive attitude but you can just see on parents’ faces that it is frustrating because we’re just worried about the kids,” said Billings.