As the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) moves into its second semester of distance learning for the 2020-21 school year, there are growing questions from community members regarding when and how students will be able to return to in-person instruction. Currently, BUSD and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) are negotiating to develop a plan for reopening that is safe for both students and staff. While the two groups are in agreement on many of the logistics of a hybrid model for reopening, there are issues surrounding safety which are still being resolved.
One such issue is the necessity of regular student testing in order to safely return to in-person learning. According to Superintendent of BUSD, Brent Stephens, while the district is working to develop a protocol for bi-weekly student testing, they do not believe that this should be a requirement for students to return to in-person learning. “We have been working very hard to identify a laboratory that can offer tests to students while they are at school, and we do believe that we will have a student testing program. But we differ with BFT in that we don’t think that it should be a prerequisite,” said Stephens.
Stephens added that it remains unclear to the district if it would be legal to deny a student an in-person education if their family did not want them to be tested. According to Stephens, while there are mandatory vaccine requirements in place for California students to attend public schools, the California state legislature has not passed a law requiring COVID-19 testing for students to attend school. “In this country, all students have the right to a free, public education. … Given that the state has not required that students be tested regularly, we are not certain that it is permissible for the district to make it a requirement,” he said.
According to EdSource, California Governor Gavin Newsom released a “Safe School for All Plan” in December of 2020, which would allow school districts in counties with less than 25 positive coronavirus tests for every 100,000 people to reopen and receive additional funding as an incentive. Newsom’s plan requires that students and staff be tested regularly in order to be eligible for funding. While BUSD will not be reopening schools under Newsom’s plan, this would indicate that the state of California does support requiring student testing for reopening.
Stephens also cited the time it takes to receive results from a COVID-19 test as a hurdle for implementing district-wide student testing. “There tends to be sort of differing return times on those tests depending on how busy it is. So right now with so many people being tested, many companies are not able to offer a 48 hour return on the tests, but rather are doing something more like 72 hours,” Stephens explained.
Leila Mirza, a BHS junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), echoed this concern. “I don’t think it will be that effective because the COVID test might tell you that you don’t have it at that moment, but in the time it takes for you to go back to school and get the results … it is so easy to get it,” she said.
Scientific findings showing that children contract coronavirus less frequently and experience less severe symptoms than adults have informed the governor’s Safe School Plan. However, according to BFT treasurer and Malcolm X kindergarten teacher Cynthia Allman, the BFT is concerned that forgoing mandatory testing of students will increase the risk of coronavirus spreading on campus.
“We have been doing a lot of research, and we think to really know if kids are bringing COVID to school, you have to test them. Children just are not tested widely and many of their cases are asymptomatic. So we don’t really know if they are bringing COVID to school, and we don’t really know if they are transmitting it to each other, back home to their families, or to the adults that work with them at school,” she said.
Miles Miller, a senior in Academic Choice (AC) at BHS and student director on the BUSD School Board, supports regular testing for students when BUSD begins a hybrid model. However, Miller does not want difficulties setting up regular testing for all students to prevent schools from offering in-person instruction.
“Organizing student testing, especially for a school [as big as] BHS … definitely could prevent us from having any students go back … to some form of in-person learning. I definitely think [requiring testing] is not something that we should let hold us back. But that does not mean we should not put all of our effort into having it,” said Miller.
Though BFT and BUSD are still working to resolve this difference, BFT president Matt Meyer emphasized that he does not believe the district is opposed to student testing. “We are in negotiations, and we are working with the district to resolve these differences so there is a lot of back and forth. But, I think the district is also trying to figure out how they can do student testing and make it happen,” said Meyer.
Another issue being discussed by BFT and BUSD is whether to allow teachers to return to in-person teaching on a volunteer basis. BUSD’s plan would include a process for teachers in high risk groups or who live with people in high risk groups to stay home. However, other teachers would be expected to return to in-person teaching.
“Teachers who are in high risk categories, as the categories are defined by the Center for Disease Control (CDC), can work with our human resources department. They can offer documentation of their high-risk status, they can request to work from home, and our human resources department considers each of those requests individually and can grant employees accommodations to work from home,” said Stephens.
According to Stephens, the district is concerned that if all teachers were to return on a volunteer basis, there would not be enough teachers to accommodate the number of students who would choose to return.
However, Allman voiced the concern that requiring some teachers to return would lead to a decrease in available teachers. “We [BFT] think it is going to cause a really strong staffing shortage if they try to bring teachers back. A lot of teachers are going to ask for leave, or use sick days, or even retire or resign out of fear or out of other obstacles that are in their way of coming back this year,” she said. According to Allman, the BFT is also concerned that BUSD’s process for identifying which teachers to allow to stay home would not include all at risk teachers.
Mirza also would support having teachers return on a volunteer basis. “Even though you need teachers to keep the school running smoothly, we cannot just make all of the teachers go back. Even if they don’t have some underlying condition or some real, true, valid reason — not feeling safe is a valid enough reason,” she said.
BUSD and BFT are also negotiating which reopening tier Alameda county should be in for BUSD to return to in-person learning. The position of BFT is to only reopen schools once Alameda county is in the orange “moderate” spread tier, whereas BUSD is willing to reopen in the red “substantial” spread tier.
Stephens explained that BUSD is basing their position on recommendations from the State of California, Alameda County, and Berkeley city health officers, who have stated that elementary schools can reopen when the local area enters the red tier of transmission. “We are trusting that our health officers have been thoughtful in establishing those guidelines. In fact, those guidelines are in place around the state, and we feel that until the public health officers change them that we should trust the expertise of our public health officers,” Stephens said.
According to Meyer, BFT does not want to reopen until Alameda County reaches a 5 percent or lower positivity rate of coronavirus tests, which would happen in the orange tier. Counties in the red tier have a 5 to 8 percent positivity rate of coronavirus tests. Currently, Alameda County is in the purple tier, which indicates more transmission of coronavirus then both the orange and red tiers.
Given that BUSD and BFT are still in negotiations, it’s unknown which requirements will be included in the finalized reopening plan for BUSD. Despite their differences, Allman emphasized that BUSD and BFT are working in collaboration, and not against each other to determine a path forward. “We agree that learning is better in person. … The fundamental agreement that our goal is to be in person is there. We differ on some of the details, but we are not dragging our feet and we are not trying to prevent a return in person. We are trying to make it work,” said Allman.