Transition to Distance Learning Highlights Public and Private School Divide

On Thursday, March 12, Berkeley High School closed abruptly due to health concerns about COVID-19, and the rest of Berkeley Unified School District closed the following Monday.


On Thursday, March 12, Berkeley High School (BHS) closed abruptly due to health concerns about COVID-19, and the rest of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) closed the following Monday. On March 13, BHS teachers and administration met at school to plan for what they were expecting to be a three week break. Teachers were anticipating two weeks of distance learning followed by one week of spring break, but were faced with the unprecedented reality that schools will not be reopening before summer break. 

Referring to March 13, BHS Principal Erin Schweng said, “Teachers were on campus getting things and preparing for whatever distance learning would look like, and a few students were coming to get their bikes or urgent things from their lockers. We were trying to prepare for at least a few weeks of being away from Berkeley High, but none of us knew the shelter-in-place order was coming on Tuesday, March 17, just a few days later.” 

The transition from in-person school to distance learning has been as smooth as possible, but it has taken time to ensure that all students have access to resources that allow them to complete assignments. “I know there is a range of how quickly various private and public schools were up and running. I am proud that our district first worked to make sure that we had technology for everyone who came to get it, and thought about equity of access to learning before diving in 100 percent with required work,” Schweng said. 

On April 8, two days after distance learning officially started within BUSD, the use of Zoom video conferencing software was suspended after an inappropriate video was posted during a BHS class. Teachers switched to Google Meet for the next few weeks. At a virtual school board meeting on April 29, Superintendent Brent Stephens announced that distance learning would be in place for the remainder of the year and that student participation has been increasing. He also said that Zoom software is allowed again, now with more security measures. Grades for the second semester will be pass/fail.  

On April 2, BUSD parent and University of California (UC) Berkeley law professor Steven Davidoff Solomon published an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “Berkeley Schools Leave Every Child Behind.” Solomon has two daughters, one at a BUSD elementary school and one at a private school, and is worried that his daughters are not receiving equal instruction. He criticized BUSD for not switching to online school quickly enough. Solomon stated, “My daughter is being denied an education in the name of ‘equity.’” 

BUSD School Board Vice Principal Ty Alper, who also works in the UC Berkeley law department, and has a daughter who attends BHS, wrote a response the next day titled “Yes, we are Focused on Equity. No, we are not Leaving every Child Behind.” He explained that BUSD has been doing the best it can given its resources, arguing that it is unfair to compare “a cash-strapped public school district with 10,000 students and 800 classrooms” to exclusive, wealthier private schools. The conclusion of his piece read, “If, instead, the lesson we learn from this crisis is that a commitment to equity is a drag on more privileged students, well, then, shame on us.”

Emily Blake, a junior at Bishop O’Dowd High School in Oakland, a private school, said that the adjustment to online school was “less of a transition for the students and more of a transition for the teachers as they figured out the best way to continue to teach us.” Bishop O’Dowd students were emailed on Friday, March 13, to alert them that they would be starting online school. The following Monday and Tuesday were orientation days, and Wednesday was the first full day of remote learning. Blake said, “Overall, it was a very quick turnaround to start school online. An average day for me is pretty packed and I do have assignments that take the full 80 minute class period as if I was actually in school.”

According to Blake, Bishop O’Dowd began organizing online learning procedures last year when many California schools shut down due to smoke from nearby wildfires. Blake said, “They wanted to make sure that we were able to continue learning in the event of a school closure, so when the school closed down, they already had ideas of how to make online learning work.” 

While BHS was not as prepared for the transition to online learning as Bishop O’Dowd, teachers have been able to manage. After having three weeks to figure out class schedules, online curriculum and office hour scheduling, remote learning at BHS officially began on April 6, the original date that BUSD was expected to return from spring break. 

BHS Spanish teacher Jaime Prado said, “Given the circumstances and the difficulty of the situation in which we had to implement it, I think BHS did a really good job in implementing remote learning. From what I have seen, access to the technology necessary for online learning can often be a secondary consideration. I really like that we have never forgotten about students’ life circumstances and how that impacts their ability to access the online learning opportunities we are providing.” 

Prado uses a variety of online resources to supplement online learning, and he explained that his higher-level classes are doing project-based learning. Unlike some teachers, he uses midweek deadlines to help prevent procrastination amongst his students. “I have some due dates in the middle of the week because I know that everybody, even me back when I took some online classes, procrastinates and may wait until late in the week or the day something is due to start to work on something,” he said. Prado has also been organizing small group work for his classes in order to encourage student-to-student interaction. However, his main challenge is creating a routine for himself that incorporates his need to plan classwork and supervise his young daughter.
Karl Kaku, an English teacher at BHS, is also dealing with the challenges of homeschooling his kids and simultaneously teaching his students. He has had to learn how to use new technology, which he feels is not a sufficient replacement for in-person learning. He said, “I hope we learn that technology is not the answer to everything in education. I think we are learning that we need to be in the classroom, and we can use technology so we can have stronger classrooms. I think Berkeley High will be stronger because of this.”