Berkeley schools superintendent to recommend distance learning for school year's start

A letter sent to Berkeley Unified School District families and staff from the superintendent on Monday indicates a recommendation will be made to start the school year with distance learning in place. 

Schools Superintendent Brent Stephens wrote in his letter that it was a heartbreaking decision to make and that he wants more for students than a "slow, measured reopening" as schools struggle with their decisions amid a pandemic seeing a resurgence of COVID-19 cases. 

"I know that this will come as difficult news for many families and students, and particularly for parents and guardians of younger children, as distance learning places them in a very challenging predicament," Stephens said. 

Stephens said a return to on-campus learning is possible, but that it does not appear feasible to implement in a safe manner by Aug. 17. 

The superintendent said Berkeley schools have been working this summer to prepare their facilities, but at the same time have been monitoring local conditions with concern. 

"Among our earliest criteria for opening campuses on August 17 is a decrease in hospitalizations over 14 days, whereas currently we are seeing a 14 day rise," said Stephens. "Efficient testing and contact tracing are additional criteria, and while testing is becoming more widely available, delays in appointments and results pose a significant concern."

The district acknowledges that a return to on-campus learning is the preference of the majority, but there are also financial challenges in order to get back to a classroom setting. 

"We’re adapting our facilities with plexiglass, handwashing stations, and air filtration units; all of these supplies are in high demand and installation will be taking place in phases over the next weeks and months," Stephens said. 

When schools do reopen, cohorts and social distancing will be in place as other districts have outlined in their reopening plans. 

Elementary and middle school students are expected to remain in distance learning environments until October 9. For high school students, they will distance learn until the December break," Stephens said.  

Stephens will make his recommendation before the school board at this Wednesday's meeting July 15.

The current City of Berkeley shelter-in-place order does not permit schools to reopen.