Schools are enormously important to modern society, both nationally and globally. Along with their core function of education, they provide services such as childcare and meals. Due to the school closures brought on by the coronavirus pandemic, these services have, in many places across the US, been closed down as well. This is all to show just how significant schools are in America, and how important it is to begin to reopen them. However, along with many attempts to return to our previous lives, the action of reopening schools would bring significant risk of increasing infection rates to students, teachers, and entire communities.
With the goal of a safe reopening, the Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) administration, in association with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and other groups, has been working on a phased plan to integrate in-person learning for elementary school students. The plan would allow for cohorts of eight, and later fourteen selected students to attend a school, interacting only with regularly tested teachers and staff members who have volunteered to work in person. This plan is extremely well-conceived, particularly given the extraordinarily complex circumstances. But there are still some challenges, particularly in regards to its effect on teachers that results from that very complexity.
The first of these challenges relates to educator and staff participation. In a BUSD survey on returning to school given this past July, over half of the staff responses indicated a preference for returning to in-person learning only when the spread of COVID-19 allows for a full reopening or once a vaccine has been developed. This data suggests that there may be a significantly decreased number of staff and educators available to implement the district’s plan. This could cause teachers who opt in to be instructing multiple cohorts, and thus the number of students a teacher interacts with would not be less than that of a full class, particularly in the 14-student phase, increasing exposure risks.
An additional challenge is the enforcement of social distancing and mask-wearing regulations. While young kids are more able to control themselves than society often gives them credit for, if these rules are difficult for adults to follow — as many have shown in recent months — it would be difficult for all involved to strictly adhere to the guidelines. It would also likely increase stress for teachers on top of managing a curriculum of hybrid learning, with some students at home and others at school.
These are, however, secondary concerns, applicable only if and when schools are reopened in Berkeley, according to this very specific, and seemingly well thought out plan. Beyond these challenges lies the question of reopening schools at all. Data indicates that, after reopening schools, communities see a renewed increase in COVID-19 cases. A recent study of 131 countries found that, after reopening schools, infection rates increased on average by a factor of 24. Even considering Berkeley’s safety standards, and the stringency of the current plan for reopening schools — both of which would surely help to lower this factor — there is every reason to believe that Berkeley would follow the pattern of increased rates as well. It may be that these other schools did not reopen with the high level of care and consideration that has gone into the BUSD plan, but it is important to look closely at all of the data, national and international, to determine if it really is safe to go forward.