On April 14, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board met to discuss a range of issues, including on-campus learning at Berkeley’s elementary and middle schools, as well as the ongoing reopening process at Berkeley High School (BHS). The board also weighed various options for in-person graduation, which is set to occur in June.
The meeting began with a public comment period, during which many parents voiced their concerns over BUSD’s unwillingness to return to full-time in-person learning. Some parents pointed to worsening educational and mental health outcomes among K-12 students as key reasons to shift out of distance learning.
“We are in an educational crisis right now, and the [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC)] has determined that it is truly safe to return to school,” an anonymous parent said. “It is deeply concerning to me that this board has been signaling towards continued virtual engagement as opposed to reopening.”
Some speakers, however, were strongly opposed to school reopening at all grade levels within BUSD. King Middle School teacher Yvette Felarca argued that the spread of COVID-19 variants posed a risk to the health of students and their families, and that in-person instruction could worsen the transmission of these variants.
“All studies have shown that, at the upper grade levels, the spread of COVID-19 is just as high as it is amongst adults,” Felarca said. “Therefore, the district is playing Russian roulette with children’s lives as long as our schools are open.”
Following public comment, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens provided an overview of the district’s reopening progress. He discussed the on-campus learning survey conducted at BHS, which asked each family whether they would prefer to remain in distance learning or attend additional in-person classes. The district received more than two thousand responses to the survey, with 40 percent of respondents opting to return to campus for classes in Term 8. According to Stephens, 37.4 percent of BHS students did not respond to the survey.
Stephens added that the survey’s non-response rates were highest among four groups: Special education, socioeconomically disadvantaged, Black, and Latinx students. Counselors at BHS have recently begun to contact students, calling and emailing unresponsive families to find out whether they wanted to return to in-person classes.
“The fact that we’re getting differential responses from our families is worrying to us,” Stephens said. “We’re trying to address this by boning up on all of our individual outreach efforts.”
Stephens also presented the district’s plans for upcoming virtual and in-person graduation ceremonies. While a proposal for an in-person event has not yet been released, Stephens emphasized that any celebration would be outdoors, limited to in-state visitors only, and would include assigned seating.
A handful of BUSD parents demanded in-person graduation ceremonies for fifth, eighth, and twelfth graders. Some spoke about the importance of recognizing their students’ educational achievements during an unprecedented, difficult year. One parent, Matthew Teiblum, argued that Alameda County’s “orange tier” status means that the district should now schedule events in-person whenever possible.
“I ask this board to direct [BHS] to hold an in-person graduation,” Teiblum said. “If the Warriors and the Giants can bring thousands of people back into their stadiums for in-person sporting events, BHS should absolutely be able to do the same.”