The Berkeley Unified School District (BUSD) School Board held its first meeting of 2022 on Wednesday, January 5.
Due to the spread of the Omicron variant in the United States as well as Berkeley and its public schools, the meeting focused on how the district is handling this surge of COVID-19. Public commentators have expressed concerns about the safety of the school in person due to increased transmission.
“I call on BUSD to end face-to-face teaching in our schools and restore virtual learning for all to stop the tsunami of this [COVID-19] surge,” said Yvette Felarca, a BUSD teacher. “Berkeley’s policy of keeping schools open will ensure the spread of infection to countless children and their families.”
BUSD special education teacher Deborah Thies shared her concerns about COVID-19 in preschools. Thies said she had recently become the primary carer for her “elderly and sick” parents and feared catching COVID-19 at work and infecting them.
“Our students are not yet eligible for vaccination, they are not allowed in the district testing site, and many are not good at effective masking,” Thies said.
School board superintendent Ana Vasudeo said BUSD preschoolers are not allowed to travel to district testing sites due to state regulations, although BUSD wants the tests are open to all students.
“A lot of us share the same frustration,” Vasudeo said. “Unfortunately, the state testing programs were designed for K-12 and excluded the preschool population. This is a big problem in the design. … There is a group of us who advocate very strongly preschool tests.
In a pre-recorded video, Berkeley Federation of Teachers (BFT) President Matt Meyer discussed measures that could help BUSD schools stay open.
“Because this variant transmits much more easily than previous versions, our current practices are not sufficient to prevent transmissions in our schools, as we have seen this week,” Meyer said.
Meyer also mentioned the number of new COVID-19 cases in the district in the first days of 2022.
“There are so many [COVID-19] cases where current BUSD staff cannot keep pace with contact tracing and testing,” he said. “It will only get worse, as we have only been back for three days.”
To keep kids in in-person learning rather than remote learning, Meyer outlined new practices for students and teachers to follow, including an updated mask policy, better wear-and-tear enforcement of the mask and the requirement of a full vaccination for BUSD employees, which includes a booster shot.
“We’re on the verge of not being able to hold in-person classes,” he said. “That’s the number one issue that we all need to focus on.”
BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens gave a presentation on the transmission of COVID-19 and the new policies that will be implemented. He first discussed the four main ways BUSD accumulates data on COVID-19 cases: iHealth home testing kits, all-day testing at the Berkeley Adult School, families of students reporting cases. positive to a designated email and surveillance testing at Berkeley schools.
Testing at Berkeley Adult School and surveillance testing in the first week after winter break both yielded more positive cases than in previous weeks, and reports of positive student cases of COVID-19 at the e-mail address managed by BUSD were also much higher. Up-to-date COVID-19 metrics within BUSD are available on the BUSD COVID-19 Dashboard.
Stephens also mentioned the severe shortage of teachers and other classified staff such as janitors, secretaries and after-school staff, as well as ways the school board plans to address this issue. One method is to increase substitute teachers’ pay to three hundred dollars a day for the month of January, which is $25 more than in the Oakland Unified School District, the region’s second-highest-paying district.
BUSD will also use strategies such as canceling specialty classes in elementary schools — including music, physical education and science — and asking teachers in those classes to replace absent colleagues. Secondary teachers can also use their preparation period and be paid to teach as a replacement.
Stephens reiterated the importance of staying home if symptoms of COVID-19 are seen, proper masking and vaccination.
“[Getting vaccinated and boosted] is the most important thing you can do for your family to protect their health and safety,” Stephens said.