Understanding Why Berkeley Schools Need to Reopen

It was a Saturday morning; I was attending an “open schools” protest near Berkeley High School (BHS). I heard numerous doctors, parents, teachers, and students speak about the safe opening of schools. Listening to them speak about the rights of students to receive a proper education, and the rights to keep everyone safe made me feel a sense of unity and purpose about this cause. Then I heard something. 

Someone was yelling at one of the speakers. Nay, at the whole protest: “You’re trying to kill us!” “I’m tired of listening to you guys!” and even, “I’m not going back into that building with a bunch of kids!” The insults and accusations flew. Eventually, the person was taken to the side, and ended up landing an interview with a news company. My stomach felt like a mixture of baking soda and vinegar and I was angry. After finding out that the person was a teacher, I started to wonder.

How could somebody, especially a teacher, refuse to make progress when the City of Berkeley, parents, and importantly, my generation, have patiently waited and listened for one year? How can the reassurance of educated health care workers who have dedicated their lives to learning, teaching, and practicing medicine be thrown out so quickly? 

In countries that have reopened schools with proper precautions, transmission has been maintained at a bare minimum. Science magazine tells us, “Countries providing in-person schooling with basic mitigation measures (i.e., distancing, face masks worn in hallways but not classrooms, hand hygiene, ventilation, and staying home with minimal symptoms) typically have close to zero community transmission.”

Sitting with my anger, I realized I felt this way because I know that my generation is not Ok. 

Online school is in many ways easier and more convenient than real school, but life doesn’t work that way. When a teenager slips on a pair of socks, warms up a cup of hot chocolate, and hops onto Zoom school, they don’t learn how to make new friends, how to find a romantic counterpart, or how to deal with the ever-changing nature of adulthood. Life exists outside of our comfort zones, but high schools right now send a different message. Many worry about the learning loss we are facing. I’m worried about reports of suicide and anxiety.

Our local children’s hospital, UCSF Benioff Children’s Hospital Oakland, has seen a near doubling of the number of kids in need of mental health services this year, as well as a 75 percent increase in the number of kids sent to emergency mental health services in need of immediate hospitalization. This shows the slippery slope of not being included in school reopening plans or vaccinations. Last week, for the first time, I set foot on the BHS campus. I realized, during just a few hours of track practice with my peers, how much I love this school.

I want school to open because school is a community. Despite my generally introverted tendencies, I need others. I know my friends because I met them in this community. So, initially, my bubbled up anger at the resistance towards progress could have escalated into a deep, personal, hatred towards the individual at the protest. My hatred would only play into the division we are experiencing now. It would strengthen those who oppose the safe opening of schools. I had to remember what we were fighting for. I remembered that this fight is not a student and parents versus teachers fight. This is a uniting cause to give kids an education, and to do it with the trust of our talented educators.

I also realized how afraid that teacher must have been. Do teachers really think that by wanting to go back to school, we want to kill them? All I could do is feel compassion and understanding. Then I decided to learn more, and found out there are so many ways that we could safely come back to school in person. Those include moving class outdoors, getting community volunteers to ensure there is personal protective equipment and soap available at all times, having classes in smaller cohorts, splitting the Universal Ninth Grade (U9) into groups by hive, starting with a hybrid model until all students are vaccinated, using the city or district’s special fund for emergencies, and maybe having a Berkeley company donate tests for students and parents.

Schools across North Carolina began to reopen with COVID-19 precautions. Researchers from Chapel Hill and Duke University found that with over 100,000 students and staff, — almost the entire population of the city of Berkeley — there were only 32 cases. The majority of the cases weren’t highschoolers, and not a single teacher was infected.

Had I had the confidence, I would have tried to explain to this person that I wasn’t against them — maybe even on CBS cameras. 

I hope to change the minds of anyone who is opposed to reopening schools. My pain and frustration towards the “chill” attitude of those who don’t want to take action has made me acknowledge that forcing the schools to open and ignoring the teachers’ needs won’t work. We need to make it safe. Let’s work together to take care of them and our kids, who need to return to school.

This should not be a divide; it should be a call for unity and compromise to save public education. Otherwise, we have failed my generation.

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