As COVID-19 cases steadily decline in Alameda County, the necessity of continuing distance learning at Berkeley High School (BHS) has been brought into question. The shortfalls of the current online schooling system are apparent, and the continued curbing of students’ education is wholly unnecessary given the state of COVID-19 in Berkeley. That being said, reopening the crowded campus to nearly 3,500 students doesn’t bode well for a continued decline of COVID-19, which is why a hybrid reopening offers the brightest future for BHS.
A hybrid reopening, where students would alternate between in-person and online school, would undoubtedly mean a better education than BHS’ current plan. It would provide a much-needed end to the current term rotation schedule, which forces students to learn at essentially double the speed. Additionally, the alternating terms spent without half of the classes in session creates further setbacks for students, who are coping with an already high-stress environment. Student engagement would rise simply from being physically present in a classroom as opposed to alone in a bedroom. Also, in-person learning would limit access to the myriad of distractions available in a class taught online.
Despite skepticism surrounding any form of in-person learning right now, the numbers suggest that a safe reopening process is likely possible. According to the Alameda County Public Health Department, Berkeley’s test positivity rate in the week before October 17 was 1.6 percent, the lowest it’s been since March of this year. This is well within the 3 percent threshold that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) indicates is safe for fully reopening schools. However, the CDC advises that schools within this threshold also stipulate a multitude of safety guidelines, including mask usage and maximized distancing that would be impossible if BHS were to fully reopen.
These safety standards would be far more reasonable to enforce in a hybrid reopening situation, where the campus would be at half capacity or lower. Another advantage of a hybrid reopening is the continued infrastructure for online learning, meaning students with compromised immune systems or other pre-existing conditions could continue to attend school exclusively online, ensuring their safety.
Possibly the largest drawback of distance learning, and a case for BHS to reopen, is the rampant inequity. Although online schooling is far from an ideal situation for everyone, it’s no secret that it is a much larger obstacle for some. Many students’ families can’t afford consistent internet access, outside tutoring, or resources like a printer. That inaccessibility also affects students with disabilities who are usually primarily supported by BHS. Moreover, students living in potentially abusive or neglectful households have lost their primary support system; the teachers and other trusted adults available at school, who according to an article by Mother Jones, are the single largest reporters of child abuse.
Lastly, an end to the daunting social isolation faced by many students during this pandemic would have incontrovertible mental health benefits. A recent study conducted by the National Center for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) found that throughout the pandemic, teenagers experienced increased rates of severe depression, and anxiety as a result of social isolation. Hybrid learning offers a return to some normalcy and a healthy social life for students. Needless to say, any form of physical schooling would be a game changer for the quality of life of students.
It’s clear that distance learning further marginalizes already disadvantaged students, and provides an inadequate education. Nevertheless, a full reopening could end in disaster, leaving BHS with a hybrid reopening as the only viable option.