The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board met on February 16 to discuss Visual and Performing Arts (VAPA) equity challenges, the special education program, and new COVID-19 protocols. As in their last meeting, board members displayed Zoom backgrounds inspired by Black History Month.
Community and board members shared words of gratitude for Superintendent Brent Stephens, who announced on February 9 that he will leave BUSD at the end of the school year. Director Ty Alper said he appreciated Stephens’s strong leadership skills during the COVID-19 surges and his work in keeping schools open and safe.
“Coming to the decision to step away from Berkeley was a really tough one,” Stephens said. “I am looking forward to finishing the next three months on a strong note.”
The board meeting opened with a performance by a group of students from Longfellow Middle School to illustrate the achievements of BUSD’s VAPA program. The performance gave way to the first topic of the board meeting: lack of diversity in BUSD’s music programs.
Following much analysis, head of VAPA Pete Gidlund said he found that the diversity in middle and high school music programs largely declines after elementary school. He attributed this to several factors, such as an undiverse teaching team, prohibitive school structures, and a need for both culturally relevant teaching strategies and parent input.
Gidlund said in recent years, BUSD has made progress in diversifying its music program and he hopes to see that progress continue in the future.
Executive Director of Special Education Shawn Mansager and his team discussed their upcoming plans for special education services throughout all grade levels.
“Special education benefits every student,” Mansager said. “When we serve our students who have the most needs, we’re serving everyone.”
Mansager said BUSD’s special education department aims to continue working with general education teachers and values all student voices and opinions.
Superintendent Stephens reported on the updated COVID-19 policies for BUSD schools. He said that as of February 28 the outdoor mask mandate will be lifted on all BUSD campuses.
Director Julie Sinai said BUSD should maintain COVID-19 precautions to keep schools safe, even as cases decline. She said Berkeley’s test positivity rate is still more than two percent higher than it was last June.
“We still need to be careful, and since we have been strong with COVID-19 precautions we can keep schools open,” Sinai said.
BUSD will maintain its testing and contact tracing program following the lift on outdoor masking. Stephens said BUSD will maintain these practices even if the indoor masking policy in BUSD schools changes.
“Although the indoor mask requirement has been lifted in most settings, it continues to be a requirement in the K-12 educational setting that students wear masks indoors,” Stephens said.
Following last meeting’s discussion, Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer said that field trips and events can now happen more regularly, although many restrictions are still in place due to vaccination requirements.
Meyer said he is in collaboration with the district to balance mitigation measures with the health and safety of students and staff as guidelines shift.
Meyer said the vaccination policy being discussed for next school year will give the district time to make sure all staff and students are vaccinated when school starts next year, and any vacancies that occur can be filled.
“Having a fully vaccinated staff and student body will open up the most opportunities with the least amount of disruption,” Meyer said.