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‘A public education crisis;’ BUSD Parents Rally to Open School

Parents, students and doctors organized to show support for opening schools, despite some teachers’ direct opposition.

Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Parents held its third Open Schools rally on Saturday, February 6, across from Berkeley High School (BHS) at MLK Jr. Civic Center Park. The event lasted from 12 PM to 1:30 PM. Its purpose was to call attention to an ongoing mental health crisis faced by students due to the continuation of online school. The rally promoted AB10, a bill introduced to the legislature to set a firm deadline by which all California schools must provide live in-person instruction. The demonstration hosted multiple medical health professionals to vouch for a swift reopening of schools with scientific claims. However, not all of the attendees had the same outlook on reopening.

Over 100 people attended the event, the majority of the crowd being guardians of children who currently attend BUSD schools. The gathering was by far the largest compared to the past two protests. A line of around ten doctors formed at the top steps of the amphitheater shortly after the event began. They spread out near a cork board emblazoned with the prompt, “What’s Happening?” It had been pinned with pieces of fabric written on with words such as, “Zoom headaches,” “Stress,” and “I miss my friends.” Next to the board was a banner displaying the term, “Public Education.” A table below the steps was equipped with signs for attendees to hold up and take home.

BHS junior Chloe Freeling agreed with the statements on the board, explaining that some aspects of online schooling have been debilitating to her college-seeking process. “I need teachers to write me letters of recommendation. And I don’t know how they’re going to do that if they only know me through a computer screen,” Freeling said.

BHS freshman Katharine Graham said, “We’re your future generation. Don’t you want us to be educated?” Maddalena Walsh, an 8th grader at Longfellow and friend of Grahams recounted times her friends had called her about suicidal thoughts and eating disorders. She addressed current business reopenings and said, “If you can do this for restaurants, you can do this for schools.”

Lei Levi, an organizer of the event, spoke into a microphone as she addressed the families that gathered. “This is a mental health crisis, as well as a public education crisis,” she said. “The science shows that we need to open our schools!” The crowd cheered as Levi introduced the first speaker of the event.

Dr. Shelene Stine, a medical educator at the University of California (UC), Berkeley, and community physician trained in internal medicine and Doctor Rohini Haar, an Oakland ER doctor, shared stories of mental health issues arising in students. Haar expressed her frustration with being unable to send children help “because the child psych beds are full.” Dr. Stine spoke for a pediatric colleague who had detailed an immense rise in suicidal ideation and mental health-related hospitalizations in children since the closing of schools.

BHS math teacher Masha Albrecht walked her bike through the event as Levi began to introduce the next health professional. She gestured at the speakers, yelling, “You want us to die!” 

Albrecht had been dropping off supplies to her English Learners students when she noticed the rally. “They’re treating us like idiots,” she said. “I’m especially upset with the doctors who are saying, listen to the science,” Albrecht said.

 “I’m a mathematician, I can read statistical studies. Nobody has shared anything with me that convinces me it’s safe for me to go back to that school with a whole bunch of kids.” Albrecht said she would feel safer returning to school after being vaccinated.

Doctor Jeanne Noble, an emergency medicine physician who directs COVID-19 responses at UC San Francisco’s emergency medical department, confronted Albrecht and attempted to address her concerns. Later, Noble spoke for her colleagues, “We would really like [teachers] to know what the science shows, and to tell them that we would never ask them to [reopen] if it was unsafe. The science is there, and the data is there. We can do this safely.”

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