BERKELEY, Calif. - Berkeley's public elementary school students can head back to their classrooms five days a week, full time, if they want to, the superintendent announced in an open letter on Monday.
It is the first district in Alameda County to offer that option.
Kindergarten through second grade can head back on March 29 and grades three through five will return on April 12. Families may still choose to continue distance learning if they wish, though their teachers and classmates might change. Berkeley has 11 elementary schools in a district with a total of 9,000 students.
Superintendent Brent Stephens said that the return-to-school possibility was made possible thanks to the "continuing positive dialogue" with key unions: the Berkeley Federation of Teachers and the Berkeley Council of Classified Employees.
He also credited the successful vaccination program offered to the school district by the city of Berkeley. All staff has the opportunity to be vaccinated, and most have already received at least one dose or are scheduled to do so soon.
Parent Lei Levi said she and her 1st grader are thrilled.
"It's great news," she said on Tuesday. "I'm shellshocked."
But she shouldn't be all that surprised.
She and her grassroots parents group began pushing people in power in Berkeley several months back. They held rallies, met with the mayor, collected data from around the state and ''applied pressure any way we knew how."
They consulted with a Berkeley parent and UCSF doctor, Dr. Jeanne Noble, and had 150 other doctors write a letter to say it was safe to reopen schools now.
"We were scrappy and we got the information we collected into the right hands," Levi said.
She said the parents worked so hard because they were tired of the injustices that public school children in Berkeley were enduring, compared to private school students who were already back in the class.
Still, Levi said her group's work is not done: Middle and high school students are not yet back at school and they are the kids suffering the most.
Parent Lindsey Urbina said her high school student is in limbo.
"I've got a 4th grader and a 9th grader. I would say the learning at home, the distance learning situation, has been harder on my high schooler than on my 4th grader," she said. "This is a time when they are supposed to be not just with their mother all the time, they're supposed to be separating from their parents a little bit."
Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, told Berkeleyside that the district does not have a signed agreement with the union, and the details of the plan have yet to be negotiated.
But the union has agreed to move forward with full, in-person instruction for elementary students "because it’s going to serve our students and help our teachers do their best job, too," Meyer told the news organization. A hybrid model would require more work for teachers, who would have to produce instructional materials for two sets of students, Meyer said.
At this point, the superintendent said the details of the on-campus five-day model are not yet finalized, and there is more work to be done to figure out schedules, campus logistics and bus transportation.
There might be staggered arrivals and dismissals, and changes to when students eat lunch and have recess to minimize contact between stable class groups.
Classrooms will be set up to allow the maximum social distance possible. The default is six feet distance between students. Stephens said if that isn't possible, they would aim for four feet of distance between students and six feet between student and teacher.
Face coverings, stable groups, hand washing, thorough cleaning, ventilation and air purification will all be in place, he said.
School staff will be tested for COVID every two weeks, and a student testing plan is also in development, he said. nd most have already received at least one dose or are scheduled to do so soon.
He also said that teacher assignments will need to be changed and students might need to be re-grouped.
Stephens said he realized it was short notice and that not all the specifics have been hammered out, but he implored parents to select their enrollment choice by Thursday.
While Berkeley and other districts are making plans to return to campus, there is no hard date when neighboring Oakland Unified students will see the inside of a classroom.
In a statement this week, the OUSD Parents for Transparency and Safe Reopening group said they were "incredibly frustrated by the pace and lack of transparency in negotiations" between the district and the teachers union, the Oakland Education Association.
According to a survey, 60% of those questioned said they intend to have their children return to in-person learning, if offered, this spring.
"We incredibly happy for our neighbors," said Megan Bacigalupi, an advocate for Open Schools California and an Oakland Unified parent. "However, here in Oakland, we're not sure we'll get our kids back in the classroom this year. We're not even there yet. I wish I could be more hopeful. But when you look at where each side is, they are far apart on core issues such as when school would even start. Where is the urgency?"
KTVU's Allie Rasmus and Christien Kafton contributed to this report.