What will ‘back to school’ look like in Berkeley? BUSD plans for hybrid learning — if COVID-19 restrictions ease

BUSD will pair in-person classes with distance learning for K-12 students beginning in August — if, and only if, county and local shelter-in-place guidelines move to the next phase of reopening.

On-campus classes at Berkeley High School (above) will not will be happening next semester. Photo: Pete Rosos

Update, July 8:  The school district shared updated, bilingual guidance with families regarding its developing plans for the Fall 2020 school year in its newsletter.

Original story: Berkeley Unified School District will pair in-person classes with distance learning for K-12 students beginning in August — if, and only if, county and local shelter-in-place guidelines move into to the next phase of reopening.

The city of Berkeley is following a reopening roadmap that’s currently two stages away from opening up schools to in-person instruction. With COVID-19 cases increasing in Alameda County and throughout the Bay Area, these plans may be put on pause, or move backwards, before school is set to resume on Aug. 17.

“Our ability to reopen schools depends first on the amendment of the current shelter-in-place order,” Superintendent Brent Stephens told Berkeleyside. “If that shelter in place is not changed, then I would assume our ability to open schools is restricted, as it is right now.”

“If shelter in place is not changed…our ability to open schools is restricted, as it is right now.” — Superintendent Brent Stephens

The potential hybrid instruction plan — which is subject to change — will apply to all grade levels, but the on-campus learning model for middle and high schools is still being developed, and would initially be more limited than for younger students. Classes for Berkeley’s middle and high schools will be online, but the campuses may be used once a week for clubs, athletics and technical training, according to the July 1 fall planning update.

Pre-K classes will have “small, stable cohorts, or bubble groups,” due to the difficulty of maintaining social distancing among children. As BUSD reported in June, Pre-K classes will be reduced from 24 to 12 students. The district considered a possible plan to separate elementary school students into “Group A” on Monday and Tuesday and “Group B” on Thursday and Friday. The first group will stagger kindergarten and first grade, second and third grade, and fourth and fifth grade. The second group will include English Language Development, Response to Intervention & Instruction, Special Education and a still-in-development “Ed Camp” program.

Berkeley Elementary Schools On-Campus Schedules
On-campus schedules for BUSD elementary schools for the fall semester. Images: BUSD

The day will begin with a health screening, there will be separate entrance points for students and staff, trained parent volunteers will be on hand to enforce the new processes, including enforcing 6-foot distancing in entry lines.

These changes will be paired with daily use of cloth face coverings, face shields, temperature screening, physical distancing and limited cohort sizes.

Anyone coming to a school building will be expected to have monitored themselves for COVID-19 symptoms beforehand and stay home if they feel sick, and all students aged kindergarten and above are required to wear face coverings. Previous guidance from Alameda County only required mask use for students aged 12 and above, but they have updated this information in their most recent guidance.

Staff will be given face coverings and optional face shields, and hand sanitizer, cleaning supplies and gloves will be available in classrooms. There will be isolation areas on campus to quarantine before returning home if anyone exhibits symptoms.

There will be no assemblies, large gatherings, field trips, school or classroom visitors in the upcoming school year, and all play structures will be closed, but the district will make modifications to facilities that require shared use. All elementary school classroom sinks will be replaced with touch-less faucets by December, the district says, and it’s exploring the possibility of replacing drinking fountains and sinks on all campuses, and obtaining portable air filters for classrooms without windows.

Inside bubble groups, social distancing rules will be relaxed. Students will be outside with their teachers as much as possible, and each bubble group will be assigned a yard location. The school day will also be shorter to allow teachers time to prepare for the following day, as the district will no longer be providing preparation periods during the school day.

With current plans, all learning for secondary education will be online and a portion of the week will be set aside for in-person clubs, advisory, athletics and career technical education. Each student is allowed to be a part of one bubble group for these activities. This could evolve to include more on-campus learning, however. In one example schedule approved by Alameda County, older students would take three classes per semester, and attend school four days a week in a “Group A” and “Group B” arrangement. This would likely involve one virtual check-in a week, social distancing, spaced-apart desks and mask use. In BUSD’s update on Wednesday, it also said students in middle and high schools could be divided into groups that attend school two days per week, as well as online instruction with teachers and independent work three days a week.

If on-campus models move forward for elementary and secondary Berkeley schools, special education students with Individualized Education Program plans will receive priority for transportation – where capacity would be cut down about 80%. BUSD plans to send out forms for transportation requests in the next week, and hopes to protect its busing program through the next year of hybrid learning.

“Transportation is among a short list of very difficult topics for us,” Stephens said.

To avoid exacerbating existing disparities among special-education students, and other students who face disparate learning outcomes, the district is also working on improving its hybrid learning plan to promote social-emotional learning, and use on-campus time to promote socializations, friendship and relaxation. These opportunities will be a “deliberate part of the design” for next year, Stephens said, along with funding streams like the new Equity Fund, which could provide quick-response resources for mental-health support, technology support, tutoring and other equity-related issues.

The district is also making changes based on what worked for students — and what didn’t — during the whole last quarter of distance learning. This includes a more predictable calendar, more online interaction with teachers and students and clearer learning goals.

“There were some elements of last quarter’s learning that came to feel confusing, like the pass-no-pass system, and … generally a confusion about whether attendance was required or not,” Stephens said. He will propose at the board’s next meeting that BUSD go back to a letter-grade system, and the California Department of Education has determined that attendance is mandatory, as well as attendance-taking in classrooms.

While the district plans to provide resources on where to get tested and expand access to test sites, part of the responsibility will fall on families and staff.

Information going to community this week

BUSD Board
The BUSD Board during its July 1 meeting, discussed plans for the Fall 2020 school year. Image: Supriya Yelimeli

This week, BUSD will share guidance on the new plan with community members and send out an initial enrollment form for K-12 parents and caregivers to opt in to distance learning. There are currently three distance learning options for students: Distance Learning Academy, which is fully remote, the hybrid model and the possibility for students to enroll in independent study.

In a survey the district put out in June, about 38% of of families and 43% of staff said they were “probably not comfortable” or “definitely not comfortable” returning to in-person instruction in the fall.

The current plan hasn’t been formally approved, but it does outline BUSD’s current goals for next year. The district is meeting throughout July for board meetings and is continuing to discuss changes and modifications with city Health Officer Dr. Lisa Hernandez. The latest plans will be presented in a special BUSD meeting on July 15.

This story was updated after publication to clarify some of the district’s proposed back-to-school plans, which are still in development, and are dependent on pandemic restrictions.
Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: (510) 585-8315.