Opinion: Berkeley teachers should speak up to reopen schools

BUSD teachers should join the ranks of the thousands of other teachers across the country who have bravely returned to the classroom.

It’s time to speak for the trees. And by the trees, I mean the kids. We need to return our kids to in-person school as soon and as safely as possible. BUSD had the opportunity to open schools in October when the city and county health departments allowed for it, but they were not ready. Distance learning is simply not effective. No matter how wonderful the teachers are (and they ARE), it’s not a productive way to learn, specifically for kids who are struggling and have no parents at home to support them. The few children who have returned in small cohorts is not enough. They are not in person with their teachers, and the majority of BUSD students are still left at home.

To those who say, “It’s just not safe” to return to school, it has to be said, “that’s just not true.” Living in this world is just not safe, so it may be true if that is your baseline. But on a realistic level, data, science, and research have shown that returning young kids to school with safety precautions in place is as safe, if not safer, than being at home. From UNICEF, to county health officers, to local pediatricians, to studies across Europe and Canada, the findings are conclusive:  “with basic safety measures in place, the net benefits of keeping schools open outweigh the costs of closing them” and “The truth is for kids K through 12, one of the safest places they can be…is to remain in school.”

The growing level of mistrust between parents and educators in our community is uncomfortable. Communication between BUSD and parents must be more forthcoming. Surveys behind which there is no action are tiresome. Setting opening dates that are not met or are later referred to as “fictional” by the superintendent is painful. Creating “town halls” where community members only get to speak for the last twenty minutes, with most questions left unanswered, is unfair. Everyone in the community deserves to be heard, including and especially the students.

Waiting for a vaccine would be ideal, but it’s not practical. We have no idea when the majority of our community will have access to these, how long it will take, who will agree to take them, or how to enforce it. Time is of the essence—an entire generation of kids is at stake. And the inequality gap is growing by the minute. Hundreds of thousands of kids are in school across the state, country, and world. The teachers and administrators at those schools did not wait for a vaccine. They are learning how to live with the virus, and they are succeeding. Contact tracing and quarantining for a week or two is far less traumatic than what many kids in distance learning are going through now.


We cannot get back to school without our teachers. Teachers, who understandably feel unsupported and overworked themselves, are the keystone to our kids’ education. We need you. And we are waiting for you to step out of your comfort zone, take the necessary steps along with the district to get your classrooms safe, and get back to doing the thing we love you for—educating our kids in person. There is no replacement for the training and experience you have, which is so evident in all the ways we are messing up our kids’ education at home.

Despite the science, there will always be fear. It is hard not to be afraid, given the true facts we hear each day about the coronavirus. But we must listen to all the facts, not just the ones that make us afraid. Now is the time to mentally and physically prepare to open our schools, so that as soon as our health departments deem it safe again, we can do so. We cannot let fear dictate our children’s futures. Teachers must lead the way. Now is the time to practice what you teach—about fear, about taking risks, about doing what is best, not just what is easy. You, Berkeley teachers, are some of the best people we know. Some of the finest teachers out there. You should join the ranks of the other thousands of teachers across the country who have bravely returned to the classroom. Unless you raise your voices in favor of opening schools, it isn’t going to happen. We need you to speak for the children. It is unfathomable to think about the consequences to our kids, our community, and our public schools if you don’t.

Julie Honan Johnston is a writer and a mother of two BUSD students