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School Board Talks Black History Month, COVID-19 Measures


At its February 2 meeting, the Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board convened to commemorate this year’s Black History Month and review future steps regarding COVID-19 policies including mask mandates, testing, and employee vaccination requirements.

Throughout the meeting, board members displayed Black History Month themed Zoom backgrounds in celebration of the occasion. 

During the comments portion of the meeting, Vice President Laura Babitt posed the question of what Berkeley’s community can draw from the topic of Black History Month, recognizing that past prejudices against Black Americans return in the presence of neglect.

“I ask you to please teach truth, teach justice, but most importantly, work to live a just truth, because the struggle continues and the strength to overcome [is] still being forged,” Babitt said.

The board’s president, Ka’Dijah Brown, acknowledged the importance of recognizing Black accomplishments as well as the “central roles” they have played in history.

“While February is the time of the [year] that we celebrate, we know that Black history is much more than a once per year event,” Brown said. “In Berkeley Unified School District, we honor the contributions of Black and African American people to culturally relevant teaching, their learning and their activities, and our schools that benefit all of our students, all of our faculty, and [all of]our staff.”

The board announced that community engagement events for Black History Month will resume since the Omicron variant delayed multiple activities.

Board members thanked volunteers who helped test students for COVID-19 at BUSD schools.

Superintendent Brent Stephens and Public Information Officer Trish McDermott reported on district updates regarding the Omicron surge, saying that testing has proved effective in lowering case numbers. 

However, McDermott noted that despite the success in testing, it is unsustainable to rely on volunteers.

COVID-19 cases continue to decrease each week according to Stephens. A total of between 20 and 30 cases are detected per day across BUSD.

McDermott addressed lifting requirements for outdoor masking, given guidance and future information from the California Department of Public Health (CDPH) on masking. Reviewing the initial purpose of outdoor masking — offering modified and quarantining options to unvaccinated students — McDermott said it is currently unnecessary to continue mandating outdoor mask wearing.

“With the new group contact tracing … there no longer is a modified quarantine,” McDermott said. “Now, kids who have been exposed to a case can continue to attend school regardless of [whether] they are vaccinated or not.”

In other news, field trips are expected to be permitted both indoors and outdoors, including overnight trips. Additionally, distribution of at-home testing kits is a possibility for spring break, according to McDermott.

After the presentation, the board’s general consensus was that the outdoor mask mandate should be removed, although there were some concerns about mask misplacement which Stephens assured would not be an issue, since the district is “sitting on a king’s treasure’s worth of surgical masks.”

Stephens also presented BUSD’s employee vaccination policy which would be directed at all employees who are not already required to be vaccinated by the city such as childcare workers.

“Some of our unvaccinated staff have been out on … required quarantines and five day bursts … over and over again,” Stephens said. “This is presenting a real challenge for us given that we don’t have substitute teachers, [which] can present an instructional disruption for students. It’s also exhausting our current staff [because] they are required to cover for employees who are absent.”

According to Stephens, the policy will require that employees be “fully-vaccinated” as defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) which does not include booster shots. Director Ty Alper said that the policy’s greater purpose would be getting unvaccinated staff vaccinated on a timeline that would allow for full vaccination.

“We want to give our students some hope that they’re not going to have to wear masks all day long, that they’re not going to have to be pulled out of class to get tested or go after school,” Alper said. “And with our high vaccination rate — and we should continue to push that and mandate it for staff — I fully believe we can promise that we are going to get back to a sense of normalcy.”