Berkeley High School (BHS) students returned Monday to full time in-person school for the first time since March 2020.
With in-person school now mandatory (as opposed to the hybrid instruction that 46 percent of high-schoolers attended last spring), students, staff, and teachers are feeling a variety of emotions.
“Our teachers miss you, a lot, they really do,” said BHS Principal Juan Raygoza. “Our office staff miss you a lot. The smiles that I see on our staff’s faces when all of you come through for registration is really heartwarming. When I talk to educators, I think that they also feel excited, they also feel nervous, they also feel anxious, but overwhelmingly they’re ready to rebuild the relationships and the community that we know matters to everybody.”
Students feel similarly. Maya Cobb, a junior in Berkeley International High School (BIHS), said they are excited to return to school but also apprehensive about the adjustment from online learning.
“I’m excited that I’ll be able to sit in a physical classroom again, although I didn’t ever think I would say that,” Cobb said. “I think that I took what we had before distance learning for granted.”
Freshman Vaiee-Talia Tu’ua is also excited to return, especially as distance learning presented various challenges and they found it hard to focus on school while at home.
“It feels unreal to me that we all survived a whole pandemic together, and now we’re connecting in person,” said Tu’ua. “I’m really excited to see all of the new experiences, even though I know some experiences I won’t get to have because of the setbacks with COVID-19. But I … trust staff to make sure the students are safe.”
The district has released a COVID-19 safety plan for the school year, and Raygoza has shared a schoolwide FAQ with students. The plan consists of various precautions in accordance with guidelines from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH). These precautions include masking indoors and outdoors — meaning no eating in classrooms — and the recommendation of social distancing.
All staff will also be required to be vaccinated by September 3, or tested weekly. There is no vaccination or testing requirement for students — for legal reasons — but 85% of Berkeley residents between 12 and 17 years old are fully vaccinated, according to City of Berkeley data, and testing will be available to students who want it.
BHS is still awaiting guidelines from the California Interscholastic Federation (CIF) for athlete testing.
The District has also installed MERV 17 HEPA air purifiers in all classrooms and instructed teachers to leave the windows open, except when air quality is unhealthy.
Vaccinated students will not have to quarantine after being exposed to COVID-19, if they are asymptomatic.
Symptomatic students are encouraged to stay home until symptoms fade, or they have proof of a negative COVID-19 test. Unvaccinated students will have to quarantine for ten days, although there is an option for a shortened quarantine, lasting seven days with proof of a negative test, or a modified quarantine in which students would be allowed to attend school with certain provisions. The District will be following CDPH’s recommendations for quarantine and isolation.
Some students have questioned the school’s ability to enforce all safety guidelines, especially because of the size of the student body. Raygoza disagreed, and told the Jacket he is not relying only on the administration, but on teachers, staff, and safety officers to uphold guidelines.
Raygoza’s administrative team, however, is “ready to move quickly” if there are incidents of students not adhering to safety guidelines.
Raygoza also wants the school community to remember the trauma that the pandemic has caused, and not immediately return to “normal.”
“I don’t think it’s what our community needs, to essentially say, after being gone for 18 months, ‘Welcome back, let’s get back to work,’” Raygoza said. “We do need to bring a sense of normalcy… [But we also need to] recognize that some of you may have lost loved ones, some of you are really struggling, you might have loved ones that are sick right now.”
Raygoza also highlighted the importance of students persevering and reaching out for help throughout the next semester and year.
“This has been a really tough last year and a half, and it’s going to be a really tough school year,” said Raygoza. “We’re going to encounter challenges that we’re familiar with, and some that we’re not, and I want to encourage our students to continue to advocate for [themselves]. If you need support, come talk to us, because we have to be responsive to you students. … Please, please come to us.”