Berkeley City Health officer Lisa Hernandez recently announced plans to allow Alameda County middle and high schools to reopen to students beginning as soon as the week of November 9. In Berkeley, however, it is unclear how much of an effect this change will have.
Although elementary schools were officially permitted to reopen weeks ago, Berkeley is still planning on mid-January start dates.
This delay, which will also affect reopening for middle and high schools, is a result of several factors. According to Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) Superintendent Brent Stephens, state and county governments have provided little to no assistance, leaving the district to its own devices in the plan for reopening.
Stephens expressed a desire for county or state governments to provide a uniform set of standards for reopening, as well as more coordination for resources such as student and employee testing, contact tracing, and personal protective equipment, all of which the district has had to provide themselves.
Despite the fact that BUSD schools will not be opening in accordance with the November 9 date, private schools may be able to. This is partly because they simply have more funding — Stephens estimated that many private schools receive three times as much funding per student as BUSD. In addition, private schools are much smaller and do not have to negotiate with any teachers unions in regards to staff returns to campuses.
Despite these setbacks, BUSD is moving forward with their goal of reopening all schools. The biggest challenge in reopening middle and high schools is the multiple classes students attend each day, with completely different groups of students and teachers. This means the elementary school distance learning plan, which employs small cohorts, could not easily be scaled for larger groups and older students, so middle and high schools will need to rely more heavily on social distancing.
As a result of this challenge, the first step to reopening is solidifying a hybrid learning plan. According to Stephens, the district began to develop a plan last spring, but abandoned it after the summer surge in COVID-19 cases made an in-person return to school less likely.
The biggest difficulty in developing the plan is finding a way to enforce social distancing, as Stephens and the district foresee challenges maintaining social distance while students move from class to class.
Student School Board Director Miles Miller echoed this sentiment. “As anyone who goes to Berkeley High can agree, passing periods are crowded, anywhere you go pretty much is crowded. You’re almost shoulder to shoulder with over a hundred people a day,” Miller said.
Stephens hopes to finalize a plan for hybrid learning around Berkeley’s winter break. “Our intention at this point is to begin reaching out to teachers, to families, we’d love to engage students to share some of the work we had completed over the summer … and then to really engage with our teacher’s unions primarily to finalize those details,” said Stephens.
Berkeley High School (BHS) has recently taken a first step towards reopening with the creation of small “cohorts” of students coming on campus to play sports. As of now there are an estimated several hundred students participating in the program. At the November 4 school board meeting, the board discussed the possibility of opening the school to other similar clubs or individual classes who could benefit from use of the space.
Miller, who is a BHS senior himself, emphasized the importance of students making their voices heard to inform this decision. “There are a lot of parents and adults saying that BHS students are fine, and I just want to put out the message that we aren’t really okay. Yes, we can do this and we aren’t going to have tantrums if we’re on computers for too long, but waking up and doing this kind of school is not fulfilling,” said Miller.
These decisions cannot be made with only the input of parents, as students are the only ones who have actually experienced distance learning, said Miller. He said students should come to public comment and school board meetings, reach out to board members, or talk to him directly to raise questions and share their input. There will also be a BUSD town hall for BHS students on December 1. Miller encouraged students to attend and share their experiences with distance learning.