'I Miss My Friends': Children, Parents Rally to Reopen Berkeley Schools

1 min
Augustin Saliou holds up a sign at a sit-in at Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley. Parents and students staged a sit-in for equity in school reopening on Jan. 13, 2021. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

Six-year-old Felix Whitaker has a message for Gov. Gavin Newsom: “I miss my friends and my teacher.”

On Wednesday morning, the first grader crouched on the pavement outside Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley, pen in hand, slowly adding those words to a letter addressed to the governor.

He wasn't alone. Around him, more than 20 other students and parents drafted their own notes to Newsom, their school superintendent or to Vice President-elect Kamala Harris, who attended this school. Others held up signs that read, “I want to meet my teacher” and “School is the essential business of childhood.”

The sit-in is the latest action coordinated by Berkeley Unified School District parents mounting an increasingly organized pressure campaign that includes rallies, op-eds, a slick website and professionally printed #OpenSchools signs.

“We're out today because Jan. 13 is the day that Berkeley public schools were supposed to reopen,” said Berkeley Unified parent Jamila Dunn. “They did not, because they weren't prepared.” Dunn and others gathered for the protest want to see a return to in-person instruction as soon as public health officials give the green light. They hope the letters to elected officials help galvanize the support needed to make that possible.

Jessica Brown, center, and her kids Isaiah Parker (left) and Juna Parker (right) attend a sit-in in support of reopening schools at Thousand Oaks Elementary School. Parents and students staged a sit-in for equity in school reopening on Jan. 13, 2021. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

But a holiday spike in COVID-19 cases and ongoing negotiations with employee unions mean there’s no reopening date in sight in Berkeley, or most other districts in Alameda County.

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Among the sticking points in Berkeley Unified's negotiations with the teachers union are the transmission rate thresholds for opening and closing schools, accommodations for high-risk staff and the hybrid learning schedule that allows for both in-person and distance education, said Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer.

“We're talking about running two different systems at the same time with the same staff and the same resources,” he said of the hybrid model.

Last month, California lawmakers introduced a bill that would give public schools a deadline to cement their plans for reopening for in-person instruction. Beginning March 1, schools would have to be ready to put those plans into action within two weeks of getting approval to open under state and county health orders.

More recently, Gov. Gavin Newsom prioritized school staff in the state’s vaccine distribution plan and put forward a $2 billion proposal to incentivize schools to begin in-person instruction for transitional kindergarten through sixth grade, starting in mid-February.

Our kids are suffering now,” Dunn said. “At this point we do need a directive in order to make this happen.”

A student's letter to Gov. Gavin Newsom in support of schools reopening lies on the sidewalk at Thousand Oaks Elementary School. Parents and students staged a sit-in for equity in school reopening on Jan. 13, 2021. (Anna Vignet/KQED)

She worries about her first grader falling behind and doesn’t want her younger son to start kindergarten this fall on Zoom. “We're kind of like hanging on the cliff edge, waiting for the district to figure this out,” she said. “I'm losing more and more faith in that every single day.”

Eight-year-old Shai Elis, who attends Thousand Oaks Elementary, said she’s not learning much in the hour she spends in Zoom classes most days. “That's like not even half of what we're doing in regular school and not that much school work,” she said. “So a lot of the day I'm like, what do I do?”

Elis said she’s eager to get back to school so she can meet her teacher in person.

A November survey of parents conducted by the district showed 46% of elementary school parents 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. For middle school parents, the numbers were the same, while 49% of high school parents said they were eager to send their students back as soon as possible.

Meyer, the Berkeley Federation of Teachers president, said the union is focused on finding ways to ensure equity for students who choose to stay home. “Teachers spend a lot of time making sure their distance-learning kids are attending class and all that disappears when they have to be in a hybrid model at the same time — it’s the same teachers,” he said.

Parents like Dunn may not stick around to see the two sides reach a deal. She said she’s been meeting with private schools and may make the move if she can find financial aid.

Another Berkeley parent, Nicole Blaquiere, nearly enrolled her 6-year-old daughter in private school last fall but opted for public schools. “To be honest, I'm deeply regretting that decision right now,” she said.

Blaquiere, a research chemist, said balancing work and homeschooling while also caring for her 3 year old is taking a toll. “All of my mom-friends have thought about quitting their jobs or going part time,” she said. “I feel this is setting women back a lot.”

In Meyer’s view, vaccinating teachers could expedite reopening, but he said the union has not received a timetable for when that could start.

As for the governor’s reopening proposal, Meyer points to concerns raised by the superintendents of the state’s largest school districts, including Oakland and San Francisco, that the plan could worsen inequalities between affluent districts and large, urban districts like theirs. The superintendents argue low-income communities with high rates of infection would be left out.

Under Newsom’s Safe Schools for All plan, which requires legislative approval, schools would get at least $450 and up to $700 per student if they agreed to requirements for COVID-19 testing and negotiated a pandemic safety plan with their employee union.

Meyer is doubtful any large district in Alameda County will have a labor agreement in place on the governor’s timeline.

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But these Berkeley parents plan to keep up the pressure. After mailing off their letters, they plan to hold an informational panel with medical experts to make the case for the safety of reopening. “We need to have our voices heard,” said Lei Levi, one of the parent organizers. “We’re going to do public acts, we're going to write letters, we're going to email. We're going to do anything we can to get our kids back in school.”