The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board held its first meeting of 2022 on Wednesday, January 5. Due to the Omicron variant’s spread across the United States as well as Berkeley and its public schools, the meeting focused on how the district is handling this COVID-19 surge.
Many public commenters raised concerns about the Omicron variant and the safety of in-person school.
“I am calling on BUSD to shut down face-to-face instruction in our schools and reinstate virtual learning for everyone in order to stop the tsunami of this [COVID-19] surge,” said Yvette Felarca, a BUSD teacher. “Berkeley’s policy to keep schools open will guarantee the spread of infection to countless children and their families.”
BUSD special education teacher Deborah Thies brought forth concerns surrounding COVID-19 in preschools. Thies said she recently became a primary caregiver for her “elderly and unwell” parents and is concerned about catching COVID-19 at work and infecting them.
“Our students are not yet eligible for vaccination, they are not allowed at the district testing site, and many are not great at effective masking,” Thies said.
School Board Director Ana Vasudeo said BUSD preschoolers are not allowed at district testing sites due to state regulations, though BUSD wants testing to be opened to all students.
“A lot of us share that same frustration,” Vasudeo said. “Unfortunately, the state’s testing programs were designed for kindergarten through 12th grade and excluded the preschool population. That is a big problem in the design. …There is a group of us who are advocating very strongly for preschool testing.”
In a pre-recorded video, Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT)President Matt Meyer discussed measures that could help BUSD schools remain open.
“Because this variant transmits so much easier than previous versions, our current practices are not enough to prevent transmissions in our schools, as we have seen this week,” Meyer said.
Meyer also mentioned the number of new COVID-19 cases in the district over the first few days of 2022.
“There are so many [COVID-19] cases that the current BUSD staff cannot keep up with contact tracing and testing,” he said. “This will only get worse, as we have only been back for three days.”
In order to keep children in in-person learning rather than back in distance learning, Meyer outlined new practices to be adhered to by students and teachers, including an updated mask policy, better enforcement of mask-wearing, and requirement of full vaccination for BUSD employees, which includes a booster shot.
“We are on the brink of not being able to sustain in-person classes,” he said. “This is the number one issue that we all need to be focused on.”
BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens gave a presentation surrounding COVID-19 transmission and new policies that will be put into effect. He first discussed the four main ways BUSD is accumulating data on COVID-19 cases: iHealth Home Test Kits, all-day testing at the Berkeley Adult School, families of students reporting positive cases to a designated email, and surveillance testing at Berkeley schools. Testing at the Berkeley Adult School and surveillance testing in the first week after winter break both yielded more positive cases than in previous weeks, and reports of positive student cases of COVID-19 to the email address run by BUSD were significantly higher as well. Up-to-date COVID-19 metrics within BUSD are available on the BUSD COVID-19 Dashboard.
Stephens also mentioned the severe shortage of teachers and other classified staff such as custodians, secretaries, and afterschool staff, as well as ways the school board plans to remedy this issue. One method is to increase the pay for substitute teachers to $300 per day for the month of January, which is $25 higher than in Oakland Unified School District, the next highest-paying district in the area.
BUSD will also use strategies such as canceling specialist classes in elementary schools — including music, physical education, and science — and have the teachers of those classes fill in for their absent coworkers. High school teachers can also give up their prep period and get paid to substitute teach.
Stephens reiterated the importance of staying home if COVID-19 symptoms are observed, correct masking, and vaccination.
“[Getting vaccinated and boosted] is the single most important thing you can do for your family to protect their health and safety,” Stephens said.