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Superintendent Presents COVID-19 Update at January 6 Board Meeting

The Berkeley School Board’s January 6 meeting primarily focused on plans to return to in-person learning. Members also discussed the English learner master plan and approved an energy service contract with Schneider Electric for equipment replacement at the Berkeley High School (BHS) pool. 

The first public comment period was mainly about COVID-19. Many speakers were opposed to in-person learning and cited the danger of returning to school with the current COVID-19 case numbers. 

“I will speak and act for no one to ever learn or teach in any needlessly dangerous situation,” said Jonas LaMattery-Brownell, a teacher for the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD).

“I am here to say that I have personally had many loved ones who have died from the coronavirus and are currently in critical condition,” said Stephanie Gutierrez, a student at the University of California (UC) Berkeley who works at Berkeley Arts Magnet elementary school. “It doesn’t make sense to just vaccinate teachers, and send them into classrooms without vaccinated students,” she said.

Parent Sarah Bowles inquired about students who rely on the free lunch program, and how they are getting food. “24 percent of the kids in Berkeley rely on free lunch, and doing some quick math, that’s 2400 kids who have been cut off from consistent access to food,” Bowles said.

Student Director Miles Miller advocated for more mental health support. He said, “Students just want to advocate for when things do get better, for more mental health opportunities, whether they are online or in small groups in person. A big part of mental health is not just teaching mental health, but actually about doing things to improve our mental health, and how to be self-sustaining with that.”

A significant portion of the evening consisted of a presentation by Superintendent Brent Stephens about reopening schools and where they currently are in the process. “If we were very optimistically to see that case transmission were to get into the red level by next Monday, we might anticipate that five weeks later, around February 16, we might regain permission to reopen,” Stephens said. 

Being in the “red level” threshold requires 4 to 7 cases per 100,000 residents, and as of January 5, Berkeley has a positivity rate of 10.19 cases per 100,000 residents. 

Stephens then acknowledged the agreements and disagreements between BUSD and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) regarding the transition to in-person learning. While BFT proposed mandatory student COVID-19 testing and a four-week planning period for elementary schools to reopen, BUSD proposed no student COVID-19 testing and a two-week planning period.

“Being a student myself, and hearing what others are saying about it, we need to treat [COVID-19 testing] as much of a necessity as possible,” Miller said. 

The upcoming meeting on January 20 will include a full presentation on distance learning. 

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