On Monday, March 29, the majority of Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) elementary schoolers in transitional kindergarten through second grade returned to full-time, in-person school. As students and staff re-acclimated themselves to in-person learning, they followed COVID-19 precautions including mask wearing, social distancing of four to six feet, placing plastic dividers between students, and frequent handwashing and hand sanitizer use.
Doctor Kathryn Mapps, a second grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary School, spent her first week back writing poetry with her students for National Poetry Month, working on math skills, and helping students get to know each other. “I thought that my students would be really nervous or upset, but they seemed really comfortable. It was kind of like … we went from Zoom to three dimensional Zoom — they didn’t really skip a beat,” she said.
At Malcolm X, staff are tested for coronavirus every two weeks, and students can opt in or out of testing.
Sonam Tsering, the father of a student in transition-kindergarten (TK) at Ruth Acty Elementary, had some concerns about sending his son Karma to in-person school, but trusted the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidelines that stated it was safe for elementary schools to reopen with proper precautions. Tsering also felt going to in-person TK would help Karma meet new friends and learn more effectively.
“It is hard for every parent to have both kids home, and you have to have them 24 hours a day — so I thought it was good for [Karma] and for the family,” said Tsering.
According to Tsering, Karma spent the first week back working on early learning skills such as the alphabet, and got to spend time playing outside at recess. “He was very excited. … The teachers were nice and they were acting really carefully about the kid’s social distancing and other rules,” said Tsering.
Every morning before school, families at Ruth Acty have to complete a self survey that asks about any COVID-19 symptoms a student may have, and if they could have had any exposure to someone with the virus.
Third through fifth graders had the option to return on Monday, April 12. According to Rick Kleine, a fifth grade teacher at Ruth Acty Elementary School, students in his class are already familiar with each other, as Ruth Acty kept classes the same as they were in the 2019-20 school year.
On their first day back, Kleine planned to spend time introducing students to the classroom, and getting back into the rhythm of attending in-person school every day. “The trick will be to reunite them with the idea of school … and to ramp them up to the demands of fifth grade, because nothing we’ve done this year has been even remotely like what we normally do,” he said.
According to Mapps, it was difficult for many teachers, students, and their families to decide whether or not to return to in-person school. Although Mapps would have preferred to stay with distance learning, she chose to return so that she could continue teaching the same group of students. Students in BUSD who chose to remain in distance learning were assigned a new teacher and classmates.
Kleine acknowledged that some students are not able to attend in-person classes, and some who can may find the transition from distance learning challenging. However, he emphasized that for other kids, in-person learning would be a good change.
“For a lot of kids, getting out of their house and being at school will be the safest part of their day. And so, I think that there is going to be a mixture of feelings and levels of anxiety when they come back, and some of it’s going to be really positive and some of it’s going to be negative, and we’re all going to have to be ready for all of that,” he said.