Update, 9 p.m. Berkeley Unified announced that the district will close all schools through at least April 6, starting with Berkeley High on Friday. All other sites will follow Monday.
Original story, 4:49 p.m. For many families in Berkeley, the eventual closure of their kids’ schools feels inevitable, as official guidance around COVID-19 response grows more stringent by day.
But city health officials are not recommending Berkeley Unified shuts down yet, saying, “As much as possible, children should be allowed to carry on with their education activities.”
With no confirmed coronavirus cases connected to BUSD, some parents have applauded the district’s cautiousness and are feeling relieved they don’t have to worry about child care.
Others have questioned the logic behind cramming kids into classrooms together while colleges in Berkeley have moved online and events are getting canceled left and right. San Francisco Unified announced Thursday that it will close all its schools for three weeks.
Berkeley school officials have repeatedly said they are following local and regional health guidance regarding when to close schools. On Wednesday, Superintendent Brent Stephens said at a School Board meeting that a “single symptomatic and confirmed case” in a student, staff member or parent would “likely” prompt school closure, pending consultation with local health officials.
There are two confirmed coronavirus cases in Berkeley, both contracted from travel, not through community spread, officials have said. And so far there are only two Alameda County schools, Black Pine Circle in Berkeley and Aspire Monarch Academy in Oakland, that have shut down, according to EdSource.
Earlier this week BUSD adopted rules meant to limit physical contact among students and slow the spread of the disease, banning large events like assemblies, performances and open houses, and prohibiting field trips and student travel. On Thursday, Berkeley High postponed its prom for a month. Gatherings deemed “essential,” like classroom lessons and Saturday’s SAT test, have not been canceled.
The rules followed a city announcement this week urging the cancellation of “mass gatherings.”
Stephens said the district has explored options for “distance learning,” so students could take their classes from home if a school closed. Colleges like UC Berkeley and Berkeley City College have switched to such online courses. But he said BUSD has come up short looking for programs that would serve all students, including English learners and those with special needs.
“We are working very hard on this question,” he said at Wednesday’s meeting. “Just to be perfectly candid about how we’re assessing our capacity to do this, I’m not convinced that we can do this right now at the level I think the law would require us to.”
He said the district would support “home learning” by providing academic resource lists, distributing books, and delivering meals to families that depend on the free/reduced lunch program.
A school closure would have wide-reaching consequences for families with parents or guardians who need to work full time and rely on schools for child care.
Speaking at the School Board meeting, Berkeley Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez said any district decision about the coronavirus would need to take that into consideration.
“It’s going to be very disruptive,” she said. “We’re looking at mitigation…, equity and feasibility,” she said Wednesday night. She said she would consider school issues on a case by case basis, not automatically recommending closure even with a confirmed COVID-19 case. That would depend on the patient’s exposure, the duration of the virus and other factors.
If a school did close, it would likely stay that way for two weeks, the coronavirus incubation period, Stephens said. And schools wouldn’t just shut down in the middle of the day. Any decision would go into effect the next morning, so parents wouldn’t have to drop everything to get their kids, he said.
Most K-12 students are not considered to be at risk for getting a serious illness from the virus. But there are concerns about the spread to grandparents and other community members.
Some Berkeley parents have been calling for school closures for days.
“It feels like negligence to keep schools open at this point,” said a parent who identified herself as “Mara” on Twitter. “They are going to close eventually, let’s flatten the curve.”
A Berkeley mother said she’s been keeping her immunocompromised kids home already.
Gavin Tachibana, a father of a third and seventh grader in BUSD, said his older student is asking a lot of questions about the coronavirus, especially as some of his classmates get sick.
“His main point is if school closures are inevitable anyway, why not do it now before the virus spreads further?” Tachibana said in a phone interview. “With the understanding that this will create a lot of hardship for families.”
Most School Board members said they trusted the public health officials’ expertise, with Julie Sinai, who’s an executive at LifeLong Medical Care, saying she’s very “cautious” about jumping into school closures. Ka’Dijah Brown said she’d be wary of shutting down campuses until the district could guarantee all families would have access to technology and meals.
Ty Alper said he was sympathetic, however, to demands for immediate closure. Most children have not been able to get tested for the disease, so Alper said it seemed “obvious” that COVID-19 is lurking somewhere in the schools without being detected.
Deciding to keep schools open “to me seems like this sort of exceptionalism that it’s not going to happen here, when everything we’re seeing everywhere else says it’s going to happen here. If we know that, why aren’t we acting now?” he said.
Alper, the only board member who currently has children in BUSD schools, said he is also skeptical that the district’s new event rules will prevent spread.
“Limiting large gatherings? Anyone who’s ever been in passing periods at Berkeley High — you couldn’t get more of a large gathering,” he said.
The district has taken a number of other steps to try to slow the spread of coronavirus in schools.
Last weekend, custodial staff worked overtime deep-cleaning every BUSD building, according to Stephens. But he said staff’s capacity — and the shortage of sanitizing products — will prevent that from becoming a regular event.
The superintendent is also in talks with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers about crafting an agreement that would allow staff to stay home, if they feel they need to do so, without using up paid sick leave. Student absences need only a parent call or note to get excused, he said.
With all the mitigation work, Stephens acknowledged that most families are mainly wondering whether their children’s schools will close.
“That’s really what’s on everybody’s mind,” he said.