After Leading School Closures, Berkeley Teachers Union President Spotted Dropping Daughter Off at In-Person Preschool

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A screengrab of a video posted to YouTube by the 'Guerilla Momz' group showed Berkeley Federation of Teachers President Matt Meyer dropping his daughter off at an in-person preschool. (Courtesy Guerilla Momz via YouTube)

Updated March 2

Read a KQED editorial statement about this story.

Parent groups are crying "hypocrisy" after a video surfaced showing the president of the Berkeley teachers union dropping off his 2-year-old daughter at an in-person preschool.

Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, has fought for what he called the "gold standard" for the teachers he represents — saying Berkeley schools should only reopen to in-person learning when educators are vaccinated, among other criteria.

A tentative plan between the Berkeley Unified School District and Berkeley Federation of Teachers in mid-February would see preschoolers through second grade returning to class at the end of March and other grades staggering back to in-person learning through April, according to Berkeleyside.

But some Berkeley parents have claimed that the union is moving too slow and are pushing for earlier school reopenings. They have long argued — and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has agreed — that schools are safe to reopen without vaccinations for all teachers.

Looking to prove a double-standard by the Berkeley Federation of Teachers union president, they followed Meyer and his 2-year-old daughter to her preschool, camera in hand. The footage they captured has ignited the ire of parents groups fighting teachers unions — and Meyer in particular.

Dr. Shelene Stine treats COVID-19 patients at Highland Hospital's Department of Internal Medicine, but she's also a parent of 3-year-old twins who attend the same preschool as Meyer's daughter. Stine also has a 5-year-old attending kindergarten at a Berkeley Unified School District school.

The divide between the quality in-person teaching her twins receive at the preschool — which includes "play-based learning" — compared to the senses-dulling video screens her 5-year-old looks at for distance learning is a yawning chasm, she said. She has spoken at rallies to reopen public schools and written public letters to the Berkeley Unified School District to push them to reopen safely.

Berkeley teachers have claimed that kids may not honor masking requirements, which Stine says her personal experience contradicts.

"I am a physician. It is definitively the scientific agreement that it is possible to deliver safe in-person education," Stine said. "It's infuriating to know Matt Meyer says kids can't wear masks when kids in his preschool wear them all day long."

Meyer, for his part, said the incident was an intrusion on his child's privacy. While the group who filmed his family, who call themselves "Guerilla Momz," did blur out his daughter in their video, they managed to spook her, he said.

“I have my two-year-old in preschool. Unfortunately, there are not public schools for kids her age. We are excited that we will be reopening soon with a plan that our members and the district supports," Meyer said in a text message to KQED Sunday morning.

He added that of the people following him and his daughter, one "scared my kid and the others in the vicinity. It was super inappropriate."

In an email addressed to the Berkeley Unified community on Monday, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens said the Guerilla Momz video "invade[d] the privacy of a family in our school community and target[ed] one of our educators."

Stephens appealed to both parents and educators for calm and mutual respect as the district prepares for reopening.

"In less than a month, we will have the opportunity to be together again on our school campuses," Stephens wrote. "We will need each other in order to stay safe. Looking to what’s ahead of us ... nothing is served by treating members of our community, including our teachers - and the teacher who represents them as their union president - as the enemy. We compromise our collective well-being if we don’t respect one another and treat each other with compassion."

The @guerillaMomz group declined to identify individual members by name, fearing retaliation against their kids at school. But they refuted that they scared his child, claiming they were walking quietly to avoid catching audio on the video they recorded.

"We'd heard for a while that he sent his kid to private preschool and we've been hearing him make crazy claims at the school board meetings — it was 'too dangerous' for schools to open because kids wouldn't wear masks. Meanwhile, his kid is wearing a mask at school," the group said in a written statement.

Though KQED is not identifying the preschool Meyer's child was attending by name, the school's website says for every one teacher there are four to five children.

The video has surfaced at a unique political moment. Groups representing parents have emerged as a major political force in California and are vehemently pushing for school reopenings putting them at odds with teachers unions who largely want vaccines before they feel safe restarting in-person instruction. Those parent groups have protested in Berkeley, called for the ouster of school board members in Oakley, California, and rallied against San Francisco Unified School District teachers.

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Equity has emerged as a fault line in those discussions, with white parents overwhelmingly wishing for the return to in-person instruction in SFUSD surveys, while Black and brown parents show less enthusiasm about returning and Asian parents are on the opposite end of the spectrum, feeling cautious about the return to in-person instruction.

So in this environment, is Meyer's move to bring his daughter into preschool truly hypocrisy?

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Yalda Modabber thinks in-person preschool could pose more risks for those teachers. She's the executive director of the El Cerrito nonprofit preschool and elementary school Golestan Education, and its accompanying educational consultancy firm.

Before her career as an educator, Modabber spent 15 years as an immunologist. She is also the parent of two students, ages 14 and 17, in the Berkeley Unified School District. And she is on an advisory panel for Berkeley school reopening.

Modabber didn't want to speak specifically about the preschool Meyer's child is attending because she hasn't looked into it. But in general, she is concerned about the safety of preschool teachers, even more so than that of elementary school teachers.

"The older the children are, the more able they are to control their bodies and they need less physical comforting. So in a preschool setting, you have children that will throughout the day need to be comforted and held," Modabber said. "And so there's no way to maintain that proximity (like social distancing)."

She did caution that smaller children aren't as likely to spread COVID-19 due to lower lung capacity and fewer of the cell receptors that make viral transmission more viable.

"So in seeing this video, I'm sort of torn," she said.

On the other hand, with Berkeley's school district, "we're talking about 10,000 students and the class sizes are large. So you have one teacher for 20 to 30 kids. It's very different from a preschool or day care where they may have one teacher for six kids," she said.

On the comparison of public schools with more children to private ones with fewer class sizes, Meyer agrees.

Meyer said that his job is to advocate for the will of the teachers in his union, and where he sends his own children is a "personal choice." Preschools, he said, are "a completely different universe from an elementary school in terms of size, services provided, outside space and public health guidelines. I don't have elementary school-aged children," he said. "So I haven't had to make those choices."

But to many parents, those distinctions are a moot point.

"It's completely opposite of what he's pushing," said Jonathan Zachreson, the founder of Reopen California Schools, which counts Berkeley parents among many of its members. "So why is that safe for him and those people who work there (at the preschool), but not for all of the kids in Berkeley Unified and the teachers? The answer is: It is safe."

Berkeley parent Mara Kolesas, a former PTA Berkeley Council president, said while she understands the anger felt by parents — and agrees schools should be opened — following Meyer's 2-year-old with a camera crosses a line.

"I do not agree with it at all," Kolesas said. Conflating private preschools and public schools is one mistake, she said. Another is mixing the political with the personal, which to her dilutes the clearer message that most science agrees schools can reopen safely.

"For me, you don't need to attack people personally, you need to address it politically. When you start getting personal, you mix up dimensions, and you don't get to discuss the real thing," Kolesas said. "Here, the real thing is (Meyer) put fear before science, and the right of teachers before the right of kids. That's the issue."

Zachreson, the founder of Reopen California Schools, said parents will view Meyer's actions through the lens of their own experiences.

With smaller children "they're probably interacting even more than you would at school," Zachreson said. "So it's the hypocrisy that's really frustrating."

This story was updated March 1 to incorporate remarks from Berkeley Unified Superintendent Brent Stephens.

KQED reporters Vanessa Rancaño and Sara Hossaini contributed to this report.

Editorial Statement:
KQED stands firmly behind the reporting from Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez about the Berkeley teachers union president. However, we have decided to remove the embedded video from the story, and include a link instead. While the reporting added context to this issue — and to the video specifically — embedding the video didn’t add to the journalistic value of the story and we erred in embedding it in the first place.

This story is about one of the core issues affecting the well-being of many families amid the pandemic, and it’s about someone who has power in the reopening conversation about Berkeley’s public school system. When a public figure is influential on an issue — and helping to shape the outcomes — the contrast between public and private behavior is newsworthy.

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