On January 27, the annual Superintendent’s State of the District meeting was held from 6 PM to 8 PM through Zoom, and also broadcast live on YouTube. The meeting was opened to the Berkeley Unified School District’s (BUSD) entire community, and its main purpose focused mostly on BUSD guardians.
The meeting was divided into two sections, an hour each. The preceding hour was composed of a presentation that addressed BUSD accomplishments during distance learning, a brief update on schools reopening, district funding status, and the 2021-22 budget building process. The following hour was purposefully unscripted, dedicated to answering the community’s live questions pertaining to school reopening plans.
Part 1: Superintendent’s Presentation
Superintendent Brent Stephens led the first hour of the meeting with a presentation on recent BUSD developments and accomplishments. Half an hour was committed to recognizing the district’s achievements during the fall of 2020. Stephens praised BUSD staff and volunteers for conducting a handful of projects in the past year. These included continued student education through the Curbside Library Program, virtual author readings, facilitated conversations surrounding challenges and opportunities for Black families, meal distribution, and virtual gardening and cooking classes.
Stephens then talked about updates on Berkeley schools’ reopening process. He assured attendees that reopening plans are the top-priority for the district’s focus and referred to a checklist for the elementary schools reopening process from Berkeley Public School’s website.
“We’ve been keeping track on a week-by-week basis of the district’s progress towards completing a whole variety of tasks associated with preparing our facilities and staff to reopen into a hybrid model,” Stephens said.
Stephens announced a modification — recently created by Governor Gavin Newsom — on the threshold rate at which schools will be allowed to reopen. Previously, in order for schools to reopen, the requirement for cases per county was lower than 7 cases per 100,000 residents. Now, the requirement has increased to accommodate less than 25 per 100,000 residents.
Noting a decrease in COVID-19 transmission rates in Alameda County, Stephens expressed hope that Berkeley elementary schools could reopen in less than a few weeks. “We’re getting closer and closer,” he said.
Regarding COVID-19 testing and vaccinations for BUSD’s staff population, Stephens confirmed that staff would have access to testing every two weeks once schools reopen. Development of a student testing program is still underway. In terms of COVID-19 vaccinations, it is still unclear when doses will be given to educators specifically.
Later in the presentation, Stephens addressed next year’s state funding for BUSD. Since 2018, BUSD has witnessed a significant reduction to its budget, a total of $5.5 million for last year’s, adding up to a total of $8.8 million in budget cuts during the past three years.
“This downward trend [in funding] has been having a slow erosive effect on our school district and public education in California,” said Stephens. This year’s budget “appears to be better,” however it is too early to make predictions on how much revenue will be available for use.
To finish the presentation, Stephens outlined BUSD’s budget building process. The planning process for the next few months intends to identify high-level priorities, which include but are not limited to student education on the Black Lives Matter movement, gender equity and instruction on consent, and programs to provide learning loss, academic, emotional, and social support for students returning from isolation. Community engagement efforts in the spring semester will include the development of a Local Control and Accountability plan, an English Learner Master plan, middle school student assignment, and African American Success Framework.
Part 2: Discussion
In the meeting’s second hour-long section, Stephens and School Board Director Ty Alper fielded questions from parents about the district’s reopening progress. Stephens began by explaining that negotiations between BUSD and the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) were ongoing, and that teachers would not be able to return to in-person instruction until an agreement was reached.
“We cannot force the reopening process without having our teachers onboard,” Stephens said. “If we reach an impasse with BFT, the reopening process will be delayed by months. … We won’t reopen this school year,” he explained.
According to Stephens, negotiations between BUSD and BFT have been progressing well, and both parties hope to reach an agreement in the near future. Stephens reaffirmed that the district plans to reopen as soon as pandemic-related conditions improve.
Some parents expressed concern over the fact that BUSD had not yet released its hybrid-learning plan. Others argued that the district should return to full in-person instruction immediately, given the educational losses that had occurred during distance learning.
“Studies coming out of Berkeley and California are showing striking declines in students’ math performance, especially among disadvantaged students,” one parent said. “This is an educational crisis, and four in-person hours of instruction per week won’t cut it.”
Alper and Stephens acknowledged parents’ feelings regarding distance learning, but explained that a hybrid-learning model was the district’s only option.
According to Stephens, it is unlikely that any school within BUSD will return to full in-person instruction during the current school year.
“Our philosophy regarding the hybrid learning model is that we have to start somewhere,” Alper said. “The requirement for all students to be six feet apart at all times forces us to limit our in-person learning options.”
School Board Representative Laura Babitt weighed in on the issue of reopening towards the end of the meeting, explaining that she was sympathetic to parents’ reopening wishes.
Babitt said that many parents had come to her for help, explaining that their children were struggling with the social aspect of distance learning.
“I was as surprised and dismayed as you were to see these declines in the mental and emotional health of our students and children,” Babbitt said. “During these trying times, it’s essential that we think about the wellbeing of our entire community.”