Too soon, or not soon enough? Pace of school reopenings divides Berkeley

Some Berkeley parents want an immediate return to campuses, but others have argued that even small reopenings could be dangerous.

It’s been over 300 days since Berkeley Unified School District shut down its schools on March 12, transforming its campuses into virtual classrooms in response to the growing threat of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Many trying months later, the district, caregivers, local officials and union teachers are still struggling to reach consensus on how and when it’s safe to reopen schools.

On Wednesday, amid an ongoing surge of COVID-19 cases in the Bay Area, a small group of parents who have organized under the name “Open Schools Berkeley” staged a sit-in at Thousand Oaks Elementary School at 840 Colusa Ave.

They held signs saying “Remote learning is racist,” and “School is a right, not a privilege,” as they stood next to a collection of posters featuring Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who briefly attended Thousand Oaks Elementary School as part of an early cohort of school integration.


Broadcasting the sit-in in the days before, the group asked, “Where would Kamala Harris be today if she had experienced a year of education disruption?”

a young girl holds up a letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking to reopen Berkeley schools
Shoshana Brilliant, third-grader at Ruth Acty Elementary School, holds up her letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom asking to reopen Berkeley schools. It reads, “my teachers are awesome but Zoom is not working.” Photo: Supriya Yelimeli

Everyone at the action wore masks, organizer Lei Levi repeatedly called to social distance and nearly all the protesters were local parents and children. In previous protests, they’ve received support from a UCSF doctor, new school board member Laura Babitt, and several more BUSD families.

But it was still an unwelcome distraction to other members of the school community. Though Thousand Oaks isn’t one of the campuses participating in BUSD’s limited, in-person program for students who have been struggling with remote learning, educators have still been using their classrooms to teach online classes.

“Why they chose the backdrop of our school — without speaking to any of us or engaging the parent community — is unknown,” Rebecca Jelen and Stay Schesser, Thousands Oaks PTA president and vice president said in a statement to Berkeleyside. “It is disingenuous to advocate for in-person learning while disrupting OUR school’s learning. They are not centering all of the BUSD community in doing so.”

“We all want our kids back in school, but only when it is safe for all. We are concerned about the learning deficit for ALL of our children. While we are all proud and inspired by Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris and her deep commitment to children’s justice, we should be working collectively towards a united goal that does not interfere with our children’s learning,” they added.

The subject of how hard, exactly, BUSD and its teachers’ union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT), have been working to open schools —and whether they have the right approach—has been a main cause for division in the community.

There are parents who want schools to open immediately, those who are resigned to waiting until COVID-19 conditions improve and those who believe the district is being cavalier with the lives of its teachers by opening too fast.

As Levi held out an envelope collecting letters to Gov. Gavin Newsom and Mayor Jesse Arreguín from protesters in front of the campus Wednesday, she insisted the group wasn’t trying to be antagonistic or disrespectful to teachers. Parents with kids in tow thanked her profusely for giving them a platform, with one remarking, “Thanks to you, we might be on the news!”

“That’s why we’re here, to sort of be able to take a little bit of control, and show other parents that we exist, we ‘re here, we all want to work together to figure out how to create creative solutions,” Levi said, comparing BUSD’s persistent closure to that of nearby Marin County, which has opened more classrooms than the majority of other Bay Area districts.

“In Marin, they figured it out because they’re smaller. Well, why can’t we apply those kinds of cohort thinking to the bigger schools,” Levi added. “It’s considered, but it’s almost as if it’s insurmountable, and therefore we shouldn’t even try.”

In stark contrast, two months before the Thousand Oaks sit-in, parents bringing their young children to pilot program classes at Rosa Parks Elementary School quickly shuffled past a handful of protesters from BAMN, By Any Means Necessary, protesting against the small reopening. Parents who had seen the protesters at other campuses in the days before said BAMN had replaced signs that read, “Children + schools = dead children,” after being accused of scaring the students. (Note: BAMN clarified after publication that the poster said “Covid-19 + schools reopening = dead children,” but the BFT union circulated a message that misquoted their poster.)

The Berkeley teachers’ union also continued to distance itself from BAMN. Some of the national activist group’s members, like outspoken organizer and Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School teacher Yvette Felarca, are in BFT, but the protesters that day at Rosa Parks were not local teachers.

“We are disgusted by their actions. These are the most vulnerable children in our district, voluntarily participating in a pilot project of supported Distance Learning,” BFT wrote to the community in November.

On Dec. 1, Felarca and BAMN notified the community of COVID-19 cases at Malcolm X following Thanksgiving break, saying BUSD’s “Trump-like, anti-science reopening” of pilot programs had to be shut down immediately to prevent further cases. In the absence of a vaccine, they said the reopening was recklessly putting the community in danger. BUSD maintained that the cases were not transmitted in schools, but reported in staff who worked at schools and separately tested positive for the virus.

The Pfizer and Moderna vaccines were approved 10 days later and began shipping out to public health departments across the country. Now, the conversation has shifted to whether both teachers and students could be vaccinated before schools reopen, a possibility some would have been considered unrealistic and overly conservative even a few months ago.

BUSD can’t open more schools right now, but many wonder why they missed the opportunity earlier

Sitting in front of Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris’s former school, Ariella Kilimnik, 9, her brother Alexander, 11, and their mother Hillary hold up signs asking BUSD to open up the classrooms. Jan. 13, 2021. Photo: Pete Rosos

The dizzying pace of COVID-19 developments and changes has stoked community debates as much as it has, at times, paralyzed BUSD’s planning.

Community transmission is a key factor for BUSD when it comes to reopening schools. When the in-person pilot program was first launched in November, cases were relatively low and much of the Bay Area was in the orange tier, with plentiful outdoor dining as well as indoor dining, haircuts, personal care services and retail open at high capacities.

Alameda County and the city of Berkeley had also given BUSD the go-ahead to open middle and high schools, notwithstanding a lengthy list of requirements BUSD had to meet in order to safely reopen schools.

Just a few weeks after that, Berkeley jumped two tiers back into purple tier and then the state’s system for gauging risk transformed completely based on ICU capacities, looping Berkeley into the “Bay Area” region with restrictive shelter-in-place mandates. The city is still under those orders now, and the last few weeks have been the deadliest of the entire pandemic. Between December and January, Berkeley jumped from 9 deaths to 20, with outbreaks at multiple senior care homes.

For BUSD, that has meant transitioning out of a waiver system to reopen schools (which is no longer relevant, and which BUSD did not apply for in September citing “widespread” case levels) and adapting to changing guidance from the Alameda County Office of Education, including another new set of requirements this week.

Still, compared to districts that did open — like Marin — this appears to community members like a lack of organization, and worse, lack of intention to bring students back. Groups like those that protested on Wednesday have also questioned the science that BUSD is following to make their decisions.

“This is a very educated community that we live and work in. Folks are actively reading the science, and I think the most fair statement about the science on school reopenings, is that it is split,” Sup. Brent Stephens said. “So for the average person who is taking in a lot of this research, it’s been very difficult to come up with the consensus view.”

Alameda County has also been much more heavily impacted by the pandemic than Marin, both due to its size, concentration of essential workers and resulting hotspots of cases and deaths. Many of BUSD’s teachers live in cities other than Berkeley. A one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work in comparing even public and private schools (many of which opened up in Berkeley) in the same city due to socioeconomic and racial disparities in how the virus has impacted populations.

If there was a unified call from all families to reopen schools in Berkeley, perhaps some of these issues would be surmountable, but the community is split on whether they want their families back in school or not. In BUSD’s latest November survey of families, which the district provided to Berkeleyside, 46% of elementary school parents said they were ready for their kids to return to on-campus learning in a hybrid model as soon as possible, while 32% said they were not ready to return and 22% were unsure.

Middle school parents reported the same numbers in favor, while 49% of high school parents said they were eager to send their students back as soon as possible. In previous surveys, 40% of parents with children in the special education program said Zoom classes weren’t working, and the data varied further by race. Some of the dissatisfaction has resulted in enrollment dropping 5%, with some parents transferring children to private schools or leaving the state entirely.

This means that ultimately when more schools in the district open, teachers will be divided between in-person learning and hybrid learning models. Necessarily, BUSD will have to scale back the number of classrooms it opens to make that balance feasible.

The teacher’s union has been blamed for blocking reopening, but Berkeley school officials trust the process

Alameda County COVID-19 metrics for the state’s reopening plan as of Jan. 15, 2021. Photo: Alameda County

Nearly everyone has praise for teachers making the best of unprecedented circumstances, but as a body, the teacher’s union has faced some of the harshest backlash during Berkeley’s remote education saga.

There are claims that the union is using the pandemic as an opportunity to gain long-fought accommodations, and turning students into pawns in the process. At Wednesday’s protest, and in online forums, parents said grocery store workers, doctors and private school teachers are doing their job — so why not Berkeley teachers?

Though BUSD and BFT have largely aligned in their goals since the pandemic began, and therefore kept schools closed, there are multiple sticking points that need to be addressed in the coming weeks.

BFT has asked that in-person teaching be on a volunteer basis only, that COVID-19 testing be mandatory for all students, and that schools reopen in the orange tier (versus red, per state and local guidelines).

They want 5% positive tests to be the threshold for closing a classroom or school, very flexible work-from-home accommodations for teachers in high-risk groups and a four-week period for phasing elementary schools into in-person instruction.

“There’s never gonna be a zero [cases] guarantee in a world of a pandemic, but we want to do as much as we can to reduce the risk.” BFT President Matt Meyer said, describing the importance of being prepared with robust testing, health and safety measures, as well as much lower community transmission.

“It’s the combination of those things that’s going to make campuses safer, and without all of those happening at the same time, we are inviting too much risk,” he said.

Currently, the district and the teachers’ union have agreed on a model for hybrid education which is very similar to Marin’s district-union agreement, Stephens said. He praised protesters for speaking their mind about goals BUSD strongly identifies with, but pushed back on criticism against BFT. The state and the federal governments have forced decisions into local handling throughout the pandemic, he said, and he “really regrets” that this has resulted in community members pointing fingers at the union.

“It’s just the wrong supposition — we must travel this pandemic road together,” he said, raising Berkeley’s history of respecting unions. “There is no other process to follow. We must stay engaged and we have to support each other.”

Once BUSD and BFT’s contract is finalized, the district and its families will still need to wait for cases to drop considerably before they can reopen — and Stephens said he intends for the district to be fully prepared this time around. Several dashboards on the district’s website are considerably more complete than they were in recent months, and the soon-to-be Phase 1B of vaccination could also result in vaccines for educators.

Alameda County, however, has an adjusted daily case rate of 43.7 per 100,000 residents as of Friday, and a 9.7% overall test positivity rate. To reach the red tier, where reopening is allowed, that would have to drop to a rate of under seven cases daily per 100,00 residents, and 8% or lower positivity overall and for groups identified in the Healthy Places Index (which have endured the worst outbreaks locally.)

For now, all most BUSD families can do is wait. The district has another assessment of its remote education program coming in the next week during its Jan. 20 board meeting, where it will outline failures and successes of its online learning program. Meeting information, as well as upcoming town halls, are available on the district website.

Supriya Yelimeli is Berkeleyside's general assignment reporter. Email: supriya@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: SupriyaYelimeli. Phone: 510-585-8315.