I haven’t rolled out of bed for a rally since I practically majored in activism in college. But here I was on University Avenue in Berkeley at 9 a.m. on a Monday morning, along with dozens of other masked parents, waving our “Open Schools” signs at the honking traffic streaming by the Berkeley Unified School District office. Drivers of garbage trucks, tow trucks and delivery vehicles laid on their thundering horns.
Freshly caffeinated parents in favor of something that we used to take for granted — full-time, five-days-a-week public education — were riled up after the gut-punch announcement the night before from Berkeley Superintendent Brent Stephens, nearly a year into uninterrupted distance learning, that the reopening dates announced a few weeks earlier would, in reality, involve the continuation of a full, or nearly full, schedule of Zoom school for the majority of students through the end of the school year.
As the parent of a Berkeley High student who yearns to return to in-person learning and actively dislikes distance learning, despite the valiant attempts of his teachers to make it engaging, I was concerned that, despite assurances, the fall could involve much the same as this spring, particularly at the high school level.
The energy that Monday morning was edgy, with freewheeling discussions on the sidewalk of a lawsuit, a school board recall campaign and more protests. Some parents launched into impromptu soap-box speeches. School board member Laura Babitt passionately argued the case for reopening.
Parents were outraged after working tirelessly to pressure the district and the city of Berkeley to get teachers vaccinated, showing up at more than two dozen meetings over the last year, organizing a letter from 150 doctors in favor of immediate reopening, and badgering anyone in power. Our island of relative school closure was growing more isolated by the day as other public and private schools offered much more in-person learning at every grade level, with large urban districts around the country and the world opening up nearly full time, even at the high school level.
Parents have been attempting to safely resuscitate in-person learning on behalf of our traumatized and sometimes almost suicidal kids. Our slack-jawed, demotivated “Zoombie” kids have become like the girl in Poltergeist, eyes staring blankly at the glowing screen.
Many working parents — especially mothers — are in crisis. A recent survey of more than 800 families showed that families were deeply suffering and that reopening full-time was the number-one choice. The district announced a 9% decline in enrollment during the 2020-21 school year. Some privileged parents are flocking to private schools and programs, homeschooling their kids, and decamping to neighboring districts that have reopened schools.
To his credit, Superintendent Brent Stephens bravely stepped out of his BUSD office and onto the sidewalk to engage in an ad-hoc listening session with parents. One parent, almost in tears, spilled out her frustration, partly in Spanish. Another said she had already moved her child to a Marin public school.
I rattled off once-obscure facts I had been forced to understand about the district’s misleading reading of the California Public Health Department (CPHD) guidance that Stephens had personally cited to me. In compliance with the CPHD guidance, districts with similar demographics like Marin and San Francisco had adopted or recommended 4 feet of social distancing, versus the 6 feet Stephens said was required. Marin leaders said their legal requirement was “to offer in-person learning to the greatest extent possible.” Three feet could safely be the default distance for schools with universal masking, according to many experts.
It may sound picayune to be arguing over technicalities like the number of feet between kids, but every foot of social distance that the district and its public health partners now choose to follow matters a great deal to our district’s still only vague commitment to fully reopening by the fall.
Based on my own research and my years of writing about education, I felt that the district plan was inequitable, inferior and illegal. A group of local attorneys who are also parents had already sent a letter to the district detailing what they regard as the district’s legal duty to reopen schools. The letter may one day be expanded into full-on legal battle.
With universal masking and teacher vaccinations, combined with adequate ventilation and social distancing (but not necessarily 6 feet), we could achieve a more than acceptable level of risk for teachers and for students, who remain at much less risk of the disease and at much more risk of contracting the disease in the community rather than in schools. Experiments around the world have shown a host of creative ways to reopen schools.
Stephens listened respectfully, even though it was clear he’d heard it all. He gently pushed back that the district’s hands were tied by the Berkeley public health officer’s nowhere-stated interpretation of social distancing and “stable cohort” guidance designed to keep kids in as few social groups as possible.
In the end, we were now disagreeing about how to open schools and not whether to open schools. We had a dialogue that is often missing in today’s polarized, us-versus-them political narrative. I listened as Dr. Stephens shared his own deeply personal experiences throughout the year. I was moved by his honesty and openness.
That said, my path would not be altered. We would not shake hands, of course. Our protest had ended, and we had each been heard. For today, parents would temporarily suspend our operations, each wary of the other side, until the next skirmish.