Why are some schools open and others closed? We look into 5 different school districts

Berkeley schools are closed. Piedmont’s are open. What gives?

The empty halls of Washington Elementary School. BUSD plans to bring back some in-person instruction by March 29. Photo: Pete Rosos

Nearly a year after shutting their doors last March, schools across the country have taken vastly different approaches to reopening. Some remain closed for in-person instruction, while others offer hybrid learning. The reasons why schools are open in one district and closed in the next can be opaque, fomenting confusion as pressure continues to mount for districts to reopen.

Most schools in Marin County, for instance, are open for some sort of in-person instruction, including two high schools that opened for hybrid learning this week. Some Marin elementary schools, such as Ross Elementary, are open five days a week for full instruction. In nearby Piedmont, students from transitional kindergarten to 6th grade are back on campus for hybrid learning.

But in Berkeley, as in neighboring Oakland and San Francisco, schools are not currently offering in-person instruction for the majority of their students.

Berkeleyside dug into the reopening plans and processes of five Bay Area school districts— Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco, Piedmont and Mill Valley in Marin County. We examined several factors that could impact reopening, including COVID-19 case rates, union demands, racial demographics, and the number of low-income students in the district. We also compared the details of the plans themselves, including whether students are kept 6 feet apart. The analysis is not meant to be causal or comprehensive, leaving out factors like classroom size. Instead, it provides a snapshot of neighboring school districts that are quite different from one another.


Here is what we found:

The two districts serving a greater share of white students and wealthier families — Piedmont and Mill Valley— have lower rates of COVID-19 infection compared to Oakland, San Francisco and Berkeley. These two districts opened elementary and middle schools for hybrid learning: Mill Valley in November and Piedmont in February. Their teachers were not vaccinated before returning to school in-person and their unions did not demand it. Mill Valley accepts 4 feet of distance between students when 6 ft is impractical, while Piedmont students are to remain 6 feet from one another.

San Francisco Unified, Berkeley Unified, and Oakland Unified are all currently closed for in-person instruction. These districts have higher rates of COVID-19 infection than Piedmont and Mill Valley, and higher proportions of low-income students and students of color at their schools. Even with current rates of infection, all three districts are eligible to open elementary schools, though none have. In all three districts, certain zip codes have rates of infection significantly higher than the county average, which is not the case in Marin County or Piedmont. Teachers in these districts will be vaccinated before returning for in-person instruction.

The school districts in this analysis fall in line with trends around the relationship between race and income and school reopenings. Across the Bay Area, districts with higher median income are more likely to have reopened than those with lower median income, according to an analysis by the Bay Area News Group.

At the same time, Black and Latinx families have tended to be more cautious about reopening compared to white families. When schools reopened in New York City, Black and Latinx families were more likely to keep their kids home than white families. We might see a similar trend in Berkeley, where half of white parents surveyed by the district in November supported reopening as soon as possible, compared to about a third of Latinx, Black, and Asian parents.

Map of elementary schools around California.
Map of elementary schools and their degrees of openness: Image: California All

Check out this interactive map that shows the status of public school re-openings in California

Berkeley Unified

Berkeley Unified has taken significant steps toward reopening its schools in the last two weeks. Now, the district is preparing to open its elementary schools for hybrid learning on March 29. Middle schools and its high school would open later in April.

The decision to reopen schools comes after months of negotiations between Berkeley Unified and its teachers’ union, Berkeley Federation of Teachers, and was announced on Feb. 17. The agreement also specified that teachers would be vaccinated before returning to in-person instruction. The city of Berkeley began offering vaccines for BUSD employees on Feb. 22, starting with lower elementary school teachers and staff. At this point, most district staff have received the first dose of the vaccine: only an estimated 150 to 200 staff are still waiting to make their first appointment, according to surveys conducted by the district.

Parents eager to send their kids back to school have expressed frustration at the pace of negotiations in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco. Of these three districts, Berkeley Unified’s negotiations are farther along, as San Francisco and Oakland have not announced dates for reopening.

Berkeley has lower rates of COVID-19 infection than San Francisco, which moved into the Red Tier on March 2. However, Berkeley remains in the Purple Tier as part of Alameda County. Berkeley also has fewer low-income students and more white students than other districts in Alameda County, such as Oakland.

The hybrid learning plans are currently being negotiated between BUSD and its union. Pending ongoing discussions, elementary students will likely attend class twice a week in small cohorts, while secondary students will return to campus only for academic support, enrichment, and athletics. It is unlikely that the majority of secondary students will attend academic classes in-person in this “hybrid model.”

“Our plan is to have the students continue to have the core of their academic day in Distance Learning, with mostly the same schedule they have currently, and provide on-campus activities after Distance Learning,” Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in an email to parents on Feb. 28.

The agreement was met with frustration by some, including BUSD Parents for Open Schools, which is pushing to receive full-instruction five days per week. Others were disappointed that the hybrid plan for secondary students does not include more in-person academic learning time.

Oakland Unified

Oakland public schools are providing instruction for students remotely, but have tentative plans to reopen elementary schools by mid to late March, pending ongoing labor negotiations. The district does not expect that middle or high school students will return to in-person learning this school year, though it hopes to offer in-person extra-curricular options for students.

Compared to the other schools in this comparison, Oakland Unified serves more students of color and more low-income students. Many Oakland families have been disproportionately impacted by COVID-19: Rates of infection in three East Oakland zip codes are twice that of the rest of the county.

The latest demands by the Oakland Education Association, the union representing district employees, are “stricter and safer than the CDC, state, and county guidance.” The union asked that elementary schools open when the county is in the Red Tier, that only vaccinated staff return to in-person teaching and that, even among vaccinated staff, a return to in-person instruction be voluntary. The union also requests smaller stable cohorts for students from three zip codes in East Oakland with particularly high rates of infection. The stricter demands serve to protect students from “certain zip codes being disproportionately affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.” Oakland Unified rejected the latest proposal by OEA. The district and its union will engage in further negotiations to determine the details of the hybrid model.

At the moment, schools are not yet ready to reopen— as of this writing, less than a third of the needed air filters have been distributed to classrooms. As schools continue to remain closed, a group of parents called Oakland Parents for Transparency and Safe Reopening has been pushing the district to reopen more rapidly.

Mill Valley School District (Marin County)

Schools in Marin County opened far earlier than most other Bay Area counties and have been held up as a model for successful reopenings. Mill Valley School District, which serves five elementary schools and one middle school, was among many of Marin County’s schools to reopen in the fall. Mill Valley reopened its elementary schools for hybrid instruction on Nov. 30 and has tentative plans to reopen for full in-person instruction, 5 days a week, in April. By the end of March, Marin County plans for all schools to be open in some capacity, including high schools.

The rates of COVID-19 infection in Mill Valley are low compared to the other cities on this list. Mill Valley has about a third the case rate of Oakland, for example. Seventy-five percent of students at Mill Valley are white, substantially more than the other districts on this list. It is also a wealthier district, where fewer than 5% of its students receive free and reduced lunch.

Students at Mill Valley schools are expected to remain 6 feet apart “when practicable”, but 4 ft of distance is acceptable. Student desks are placed 5 to 6 ft apart and plexiglass partitions are available for closer interactions. Class sizes are tiny, with an average of nine students in the elementary and middle schools, though class size would double if schools return to full in-person instruction. Elementary school students receive 2.5 hours of in-person instruction, 5 days per week. Middle school students currently receive nearly 3 hours of in-person instruction, 3 days per week. Since November, 21, students or staff have tested positive for COVID-19, according to the district’s COVID-19 dashboard.

Teachers in Marin County returned to school this fall without being vaccinated, as vaccines were not yet available. Now that the district aims to return to in-person instruction five days per week, all staff have been offered the vaccine and should receive both doses by March 27.

San Francisco Unified

Though San Francisco moved into the coronavirus red tier this week, the city’s public schools remain closed for in-person instruction and the district has not announced dates for reopening. As in many counties, the reopening of public schools has been the subject of controversy. Notably, the San Francisco city attorney sued the school district and the San Francisco Board of Education for not providing a clear plan for reopening.

COVID-19 case counts have recently fallen below 4,000 cases per 100,000 residents. However, infection rates in neighborhoods where the virus has hit hardest remain high, as in Bayview Hunters Point. Almost half of San Francisco Unified’s students receive free and reduced lunch. This district has the smallest share of white students, next to Oakland.

The latest agreement between San Francisco Unified and its labor unions specifies that schools will resume in-person instruction when the county is in the Red Tier and district employees have been vaccinated. However, teachers still are not vaccinated, though on Mar. 2, over half of the district’s employees received a code to sign up for a vaccine. If the county moves into the Orange Tier, vaccinations will no longer be a precondition for reopening, according to the agreement.

As in Berkeley, negotiations continue between San Francisco Unified and its labor unions about what hybrid learning will look like. The union is advocating for four half-days; the district is pushing for a different schedule. On Mar. 3, San Francisco Health Officials announced that 6 feet is optimum, but 4 ft distance is acceptable, which could impact negotiations.

Piedmont City Unified

Piedmont stretches less than two miles in every direction, an island surrounded by Oakland. The city is wealthier than its neighbors, with less than 1% of its students receiving Free and Reduced lunch. It also has been hit less hard by the COVID-19 pandemic. With 1,546 cases per 100,000, Piedmont’s case rate is three times lower than the average in Alameda County.

Elementary schools in Piedmont recently opened for in-person instruction. Kindergarteners at Piedmont Unified first returned to campus on Feb. 9, with 1st graders following suit on Feb. 10 and 2nd graders on Feb. 11. Upper elementary school students (3rd – 6th grade) started attending school in a hybrid model during the week of Feb. 23. Secondary students will return to campus for hybrid learning one week after Alameda County enters the Red Tier. Their expected return date is Monday, March 15, but this depends on case numbers.

At Piedmont’s three elementary schools, students are attending school in-person for two hours each day, four days a week. Students are divided into two cohorts and receive an additional two hours of distance learning when they are not in school. These schedules were approved by the school board over the summer and remained largely unchanged.

Piedmont is waiting for Alameda County to move into the coronvirus red tier to send its secondary students back to school. In the middle school’s proposed hybrid model, students will receive two periods of in-person instruction each week alongside five periods of distance learning. High school students will come to school every other week in cohorts: 9th and 10th graders will come to school one week, and 11th and 12th graders the next. During the week that students are in-person, they will attend class in-person for two periods a day, four days per week, with the following week doing distance learning.

Piedmont City Unified plans to keep students 6 feet apart, but teachers were not required to be vaccinated to return for in-person teaching, according to its safety plan. The small enrollment at the district’s two high schools means that no more than 235 students will be on campus at any given time.

Ally Markovich is a freelance journalist covering schools for Berkeleyside. Email: ally@berkeleyside.com. Twitter: allymarkovich.