‘No amount of Clorox’: The decision to close Berkeley schools

COVID-19 has shut down Berkeley’s public schools. Here’s why.

Circumstances changed rapidly Thursday, resulting in an evening decision to close all BUSD schools. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Superintendent Brent Stephens arrived at work Thursday morning expecting to keep Berkeley schools open at least through the end of the week.

Health officials were saying they’d probably only recommend a school closure if there was a confirmed coronavirus case connected to the campus. And BUSD planned to follow their guidance.

That was still the plan at lunchtime.

“The makings of the decision began in the afternoon,” Stephens said in a phone interview Friday morning.


The discovery of two Alameda County cases contracted through community spread, mounting concern from parents, and reports that other Bay Area districts were poised to close changed things, he said.

“As we entered into evening hours, it became clear that this was the most prudent and cautious thing we could do to protect the health of high-risk individuals in the community,” Stephens said.

At 8:30 p.m. BUSD announced that most schools would close Monday, to give parents an extra day to figure out child care, while the decision went into effect Friday for Berkeley’s two high schools.

“With more than 3,000 students in close contact… it seemed less sensical to keep Berkeley High School in session,” Stephens said.


In a statement Friday afternoon, the city of Berkeley said the school closures were not recommended by Dr. Lisa Hernandez, who runs the city’s public health division, but that the district “weighed many complex factors” in its decision.

The city told parents to keep kids home as much as possible to avoid large gatherings and contact with high-risk groups like grandparents.

“The intention behind school closures is to slow the spread of disease by reducing opportunities for exposure,” the city said.

In Berkeley schools, all instruction will be halted until at least April 6, the day after spring break. While many colleges and universities are switching to virtual lessons, Stephens said the district could not find a suitable digital alternative to classroom learning.

“We were lacking a solution that really could account for special learning needs,” he said. The district will create a webpage with online learning resources for all grade levels, however — and some teachers will be uploading materials tailored to their classes — but everything will be voluntary and nothing will be graded.

East Coast schools have “snow day” protocols in place, but Stephens said he doesn’t expect to make up for the closure by tacking on extra days at the end of the year.


“It’s really unfortunate,” he said. “I suspect these are all lost instructional days. It’s never been standard practice on the West Coast to have an extended school year.”

For many families, schools provide not only an education and child care, but also sustenance. The district will serve free breakfast and lunch, on a take-out basis, at several sites Monday-Friday, March 16-27. The program is open to anyone 18 or younger, regardless of whether they typically get free school lunches.

At King, at 1781 Rose St., breakfast will be served from 8-9:30 a.m. and lunch from 11 a.m.-1 p.m. At Berkeley Arts Magnet, Rosa Parks, Longfellow, Willard and Berkeley High, breakfast will be served from 9-9:30 a.m. and lunch from 12-12:30 p.m.

School leaders and families decided that more than 3,000 kids should not be squeezed next to each other in Berkeley High hallways and courtyards. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The economic and societal impacts of school closures everywhere will likely be widespread, with some parents unable to afford critical child care, and with others staying home from their healthcare industry jobs to watch kids just as hospitals are filling up. Many are already reeling financially from canceled events, slow business and mandatory unpaid leave.

“Aside from the lost educational time, it’s the impact on families — their wage-earning and their ability to be part of fighting coronavirus that’s weighing heavily on me,” Stephens said.

BUSD employees, many of them parents themselves, are largely relieved about the closures, however.

The Berkeley Federation of Teachers urged the district to close campuses hours before the decision was made Thursday.

“Every day was getting harder and harder for our students and staff,” said Matt Meyer, BFT president, in a phone interview Friday. “We have many staff that are at-risk populations. And many staff that live with people that are at risk. A loss in instructional time is a very big deal. In light of a global pandemic that is causing significant deaths, it’s just something that’s going to happen. The only control we have is to do the best things we can to not spread the virus.” 

The union has an agreement with the district to pay all BFT members, including substitute teachers, for the duration of the closure, Meyer said. BUSD spokeswoman Trish McDermott said hourly classified staff, such as instructional aides, will get paid too.

Meyer said it would have been a futile task to try to keep dozens of school buildings sanitized if they were kept open.

“I was at Berkeley High Wednesday when the bell rang,” said Meyer, a former BHS teacher. “When 3,000 kids are in the hallways at the same time, there’s no amount of Clorox that’s going to keep that place germ-free.”

a woman with rubber gloves on smiles and holds out a paper plate of food
Andrea Chappell serves free oven-fried chicken during a summer lunch at Washington Elementary. A take-out version of the program will open during the school closure. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

With some epidemiologists warning that the pandemic could alter global life for a year or longer, April 6 might be an optimistic reopening date. UC Berkeley announced Friday that it would offer remote learning for the rest of the semester.

“I can’t possibly guess what coronavirus will look like in three weeks,” Stephens said.

Meyer said districts like BUSD are traversing “uncharted territory. Everyone is doing the best they can on the fly. If we end up being closed longer, we’re going to need some direction from the state on what needs to happen. Every district is kind of making it up.” 

Stephens said he’s received many grateful messages from parents since his decision went out. Starting Wednesday, there was a “real spike in concern from the community.” Many parents, along with the School Board’s Ty Alper, said they assumed COVID-19 had already reached Berkeley schools, and that it was only invisible because access to testing is so dismal.

Without summer camps and city programs to rely on, some Berkeley families are scrambling and others are devising creative mitigation plans. Some parents have banded together to provide joint — but not too joint — child care to schoolmates and neighbors. A number have proposed that Berkeley High students start babysitting businesses.

Kyle Kuwahara, Scott Kuwahara and Andy Zhang, the leaders of Berkeley High’s STEMTec Club, are concerned about the impact of the closure on their classmates who have less access to technology, and thus the district’s home-learning resources, than they do. They’ve started a fundraiser to buy Chromebooks for kids who need them.

“I am extremely grateful to have the privilege of internet access at home and I want to help other students who don’t have that privilege,” Kyle said in an email. “It’s critical that students are still able to receive an education during the COVID-19 crisis and don’t miss out on weeks of instruction.”

“Love is in the air…or is that a virus?”

It’s not the only student-led fundraiser that’s sprung up this week.

“What makes me the most happy is the majority of this money is coming from students, not even just parents and teachers,” said Mexica Greco, 16, whose fundraiser is supporting technology and food for her low-income peers. “I’m happy to see so many people care about helping out with this very serious issue.”

Some of their classmates have found a different coping mechanism.

Those students have started an online matchmaking service, promising to set other high-schoolers up with a “quarantine boo” for FaceTime… activities.

“Love is in the air… or is that a virus?” ask the matchmakers on Instagram. “Coronavirus may have a recovery time of 2-4 weeks (for healthy people) but these memories will last a lifetime.”

With Berkeley High’s prom postponed until May, thanks to COVID-19, they’ll have plenty of time to drum up a date.

Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. She was previously a reporter for Berkeleyside. Email: natalie@oaklandside.org. Twitter: nat_orenstein.