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‘Completely Unsustainable:’ School Board Discusses Viability of In-Person School

On August 25, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board discussed the state of in-person school, a vaccine mandate for student athletes, and the importance of hiring a staff member to oversee COVID-19 protocols.

During the public comment section of the meeting, Hasmig Minassian, a history teacher and teacher leader for the universal ninth grade at Berkeley High School (BHS), described the struggles of in-person education during a pandemic. 

“On day 8, the system as it is currently operating is completely unsustainable,” Minassian said. “There are simply not enough bodies on campus to keep students supervised and safe, much less inspired, learning, and thriving.”

Minassian said most students are in front of at least one substitute teacher a day. Every day since the school’s reopening, she said she has taught during her prep period in place of another teacher who is unable to attend school due to COVID-19. Glendaly Gascot-Rios, the director of human resources, had to substitute for a BHS teacher on Tuesday because of the shortage of adults on campus, according to Minassian.

She said administrators have “more than a full time job” with contact tracing, pulling students from classes and sending them home, and covering classes for missing teachers. She described BHS as “barely operating,” with exhausted and overwhelmed staff lacking the time necessary to plan engaging lessons, support students, or spend time with their families. 

“What is your threshold for closing the school, not from COVID-19, but from a sheer lack of human power to keep the engine running?” Minassian said. “I’m not an alarmist but I am ringing the alarms and alerting you. You are flying this plane in severe turbulence, relying on a very malfunctioning autopilot.”

Lydia Craighill, a special education teacher, also criticized aspects of the school’s return. She said all of her classes were exposed to COVID-19 earlier this week. However, support staff and visitors, such as case managers and speech therapists, were not notified. 

She said that multiple students returned to school after being exposed, despite being asked to quarantine, and she received calls from parents frightened about how missing school would affect their children’s grades and attendance.

“Teachers are lacking guidance on how to support students quarantining at home,” Craighill said. “If schools are going to remain open, this really complicated process can’t be forced onto our already overworked administration team. We need a dedicated staff member or team to oversee COVID-19 related protocols at each school site, and I urge you to consider how the COVID-19 relief funding can support this need.”

Superintendent Brent Stephens also spoke about the current situation in Berkeley public schools. 

“This month alone we’ve had more cases on our campuses, more cases we’re investigating than in the previous four months combined,” Stephens said. “We are certainly experiencing an uptick, as is the rest of the country, and this is putting a tremendous strain on our administrative resources, our ability to communicate clearly to our community and to track multiple cases and ensure that we minimize the disruption to students’ education.”

As an effort to increase vaccination rates in Berkeley, the board considered the feasibility of a vaccine mandate for student athletes and those participating in other extracurricular activities by October 15. They are in the process of collecting information about the legality of this policy.

“Testing and all these other mitigation efforts are important as well, but vaccines are at the forefront,” Berkeley School Board Director Ana Vasudeo said. “Staff should continue exploring this and also explore a vaccination mandate for all students who are eligible for vaccines, so I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Student Director Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan agreed, adding that implementing such a policy could help reduce the spread of the virus between schools and solve issues regarding the scarcity of COVID-19 tests and their allocation, which was discussed in the board’s previous meeting. 

BHS Principal Juan Raygoza said in an email that starting on August 30, universal student surveillance testing would be offered to students in elementary schools and for sixth graders, all unvaccinated students in a modified quarantine, and staff at school sites. Testing twice a week is also now mandatory for BHS athletes.

Disclaimer: Anjuna Mascarenhas-Swan is an editor of the BHS Jacket.

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