Berkeley Parents Put Pressure on Schools to Reopen

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Berkeley parent Lei Levi and her first grader. Levi says over 300 Berkeley parents have signed a petition asking for more transparency from the district on plans to reopen schools. (Julia McEvoy/KQED News.)

Bay Area parents who are upset that their public schools have yet to reopen in-person classes are holding rallies in Oakland and Berkeley Saturday.

The demonstrations are the latest sign that even amid a severe surge of coronavirus cases, parents are starting to balk at the idea of prolonging time away from the classroom for their children.

In Berkeley, hundreds of parents have signed a petition to pressure the school district into reopening. Parents surveyed by the district are actually about evenly split over whether or not their public schools should bring students back in person, but those frustrated with the lack of progress on reopening campuses accuse the district of dragging its feet at the expense of kids.

"We have our doctors now saying the mental health of our children is being affected and these are long-term effects," said Lei Levi, who has a first-grader in the district. "These are generational effects, that's what I'm really concerned about. That's why I started to stand up."

The Berkeley Unified School District and the teachers' union, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, have already agreed on the complex health and safety protocols that need to be in place for reopening. But bargaining has just begun on how a hybrid model that accommodates both in-person and remote learning will work for teachers.

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Levi says she's shocked these talks are only starting now. Local public health officials gave schools the green light to reopen in person back in October, so, she asks, why wasn’t the district ready then?

"Communication has been really hard," she said. "We keep getting surprises on new dates, new closures, new everything. And it's like I just don't get what are they doing? What are they working on?"

She and other parents have watched as a handful of other local public school districts have figured out how to proceed. The Larkspur-Corte Madera School District, for instance, welcomed students back into class in October. Superintendent Brett Geithman has had one clear message for his parents and teachers from the start.

"Yeah, we came with every student every day," Geithman said. "Because we know that in-person instruction is far superior to distance learning."

Geithman says creating and running through numerous contingency plans on how to bring kids back into schools was an insane amount of work. Scenarios kept changing based on the number of cases at any given moment, and then the discussions with teachers and other school staff would have to start all over again.

"Our mission’s to get kids in school," Geithman said. "So this is time well spent."

In the end, Geithman says he figured out how to pay his teachers a bit more to essentially take on two jobs: teaching distance learning while also teaching in person, something teachers say is not an easy task.

Cynthia Allman from the Berkeley Federation of Teachers says its members are ready to go back into classrooms. Yet they recently added another hurdle by asking that a student coronavirus testing plan be put in place first.

"What is known is that kids can get it and they can transmit it," Allman said. "And I'm a grandma! When 12 different kids from 12 different families and all of their outside contacts, which I have no knowledge of or control over, when they come in my classroom, I'd like to be just as certain as their own grandma that they're not bringing COVID with them."

Parents point to research that shows kids in elementary school are at low risk of transmitting the virus. Caught in this pressure cooker between parents and teachers is Berkeley Superintendent Brent Stephens, who says he must balance everyone’s needs.

"There is a second important perspective, and that's the families who are more hesitant at this point to return," Stephens said. "So now what we've attempted to do, just given what we think will be the ongoing fluctuations in public health conditions, is to try and design a hybrid model that will permit families flexibility."

Stephens recently began holding virtual town hall meetings to try and get feedback from parents on a plan that would both continue distance learning in the morning and then bring kids in small cohorts back to school in the afternoon for socializing activities.

Despite the current surge and the governor’s shutdown orders this week, the Alameda County superintendents’ office is encouraging schools to continue to submit their plans. In Alameda County, just 7 of 18 districts so far have done so. Superintendent Stephens says his own deadline is submitting before winter break.

Parent Lei Levi says if other districts, from Napa Valley Unified to New York City Public Schools, can figure out how to reopen, why can’t Berkeley Unified?

"We need to figure out how to get the kids back on campus to figure out what the social distancing is, what the safety protocols are, how it really works, how it looks."

Levi says she just wants her district ready to go whenever public health officials say schools can reopen for in person learning.