'The Day Has Finally Arrived': Berkeley's Youngest Students Return to Classrooms for First Time in a Very Long Year

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Students return to Thousand Oaks Elementary School in Berkeley on March 29, 2021.  (Julia McEvoy/KQED)

It's been a big day for some Berkeley students and parents who have endured a challenging, seemingly endless year of closed classrooms and online learning. On Monday, nearly all Berkeley public elementary schools resumed in-person classes, opening their doors to children in pre-K through second grade — one of the first districts in the region to do so.

Getting to this point has been no small feat, involving months of tense negotiations between the Berkeley Unified School District and the teachers union, as well as sometimes strained involvement from groups of passionate, increasingly frustrated parents.

The day was a moment of excitement and a huge relief, if not some trepidation, for scores of students and parents, especially those who have staunchly advocated for schools to reopen.

In all, more than 76% of Berkeley students in pre-K through second grade plan to return to in-person learning, according to district enrollment data, while more than 18% of students are expected to continue with distance learning. About 5% of students' families didn't respond.

Caroline Francis, who has a first grader at Berkeley's Malcolm X Elementary School, said she trusts that the district has the process under control.

"I've been following the school board meetings and reading the documents that they send us, and I know that they've done a ton of work to prepare and that the city public health department has been really involved," she said. "So I'm very confident that they're ready for this."

A long line of students and parents outside of Berkeley Arts Magnet School on Monday morning, March 29, the first day of in-person classes in over a year. (Matthew Green/KQED)

The safety of students and staff will be top of mind, BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens told KQED. Everyone, he said, will be given a "health screener" each morning, and will be required to wear face coverings — except when eating and drinking — and remain socially distanced, among a bevy of other precautions.

"This particular return, for pre-K through grade two, represents a lot of collaboration, a lot of problem solving, and we're very happy that the day has finally arrived," Stephens said.

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Alexandra Phillips, a first grade teacher at Malcolm X Elementary, said she was nervous but happy, as she welcomed her students back to campus — many of whom she's never actually met in person.

"At this point, I think I'm excited," she said. "It's been such a long haul and so many stops and starts and reshuffles and back to the drawing board, and there was some trepidation at first. But now seeing the excitement on my kids’ faces over Zoom, I'm just looking forward to seeing them all in person."

If all goes according to plan, this week is just the beginning of a gradual return to in-person learning for most Berkeley public school students who choose to participate. Students in third through eighth grade, and some older students in specialized learning programs, will have the option to begin returning to classrooms on April 12, and some high schoolers will begin returning on April 19.

But not everyone is choosing to come back, and the demographic breakdown of students returning to classes is not completely representative of Berkeley's overall public school population.

"Among Berkeley families, white families are selecting to return to campus at the highest rate," Stephens said.

As KQED highlighted previously, families in Berkeley opting to keep their children at home, in distanced learning, are more likely to be from communities of color and often be in lower-income groups.


That gap is widest between white and Black families, with about 84% of white Berkeley families with children in pre-K through second grade opting to send their children back to the classroom, compared with less than 60% of Black families.

"It's worth noting that it's the majority of every group that is selected to come back. But these differences are present and they're concerning," Stephens said. In a town hall earlier this month, he reassured concerned families who have opted out of in-person schooling that their children would continue to receive online instruction from their regular teachers — not from substitutes, as some had feared.

"It's been very important to us that we acknowledge that some families are simply not ready and that we must provide a high-quality alternative for those families," Stephens said.

KQED's Vanessa Rancaño and Lily Jamali contributed reporting to this story.