In Berkeley, school reopening pits liberal parents against teachers' union

David Knowles
·Editor
·9 min read

BERKELEY, Calif. — In the most liberal city in one of the most liberal states in the country, parents are fuming at public sector unions over the delayed return to in-person classes at public schools.

“We’re all disillusioned, in Berkeley especially,” Lei Levi, a freelance advertising consultant and the mother of a first-grade student at Rosa Parks Elementary, told Yahoo News. “We’re very disillusioned by what seems to be a political machine that’s working against the most vulnerable and people who need public services.”

Levi is one of the lead organizers of BUSD Parents, a grassroots group that launched a campaign in November to pressure the city to reopen public schools that have been shuttered since early March of last year in response to the coronavirus pandemic. After organizing via email, the group grew to 500 members and held its first rally on Dec. 5 at a park in front of Berkeley’s Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School.

People holds signs and honk their horns at the Open Schools Car Rally and press conference organized by The Students First Coalition on Monday, Feb. 15, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
An Open Schools Car Rally organized by the Students First Coalition in Los Angeles on Feb. 15. (Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

“It was really important for us that we tried to maintain a positive public spirit, that we are pro-public education and we see this as a public education crisis and we are not anti-teacher,” Levi said. “The problem is, that’s been a really hard narrative to fight against.”

Statewide, unions like the California Teachers Association hold tremendous political clout, in part because of the large donations they’ve made to help elect government officials. Parent activists like Levi said that when it comes to returning to classroom learning, that influence is hurting kids.

“I’m a progressive, but on this specific issue, we’ve seen how politics has been played in a way that California Democratic leaders seem to be aligned with union interests,” she said. “I’m a pro-union person, I’m a pro-worker person, but it seems when the CTA is one of the biggest donors to the California Democratic Party, this is a concern when they’re being obstructionist to getting back to the classroom.”

While unions representing teachers have slow-walked a return to the classroom, saying safety protocols must first be put in place, California Gov. Gavin Newsom has made clear that he wants schools to reopen immediately now that the state’s teachers have been cleared to receive COVID-19 vaccines.

“At the end of the day, we can do this now as we administer more doses,” Newsom told ABC News on Sunday, adding, “Let’s not use ‘perfect’ as an excuse to safely, thoughtfully, judiciously, strategically get our youngest kids back in first.”

Last week, the Berkeley Unified School District reached a tentative deal with the Berkeley Federation of Teachers to reopen classrooms in a tiered rollout beginning March 29. That start date, however, is dependent on teachers and school staff receiving two doses of either the Moderna or the Pfizer vaccine. Once students return, the city plans to follow guidelines put out by the California Department of Health and Human Services that mandate maintaining a 6-foot distance between desks, increasing ventilation and adopting hybrid learning in which students from high-risk families continue to receive online instruction.

A medical worker administers a Covid-19 test at a testing site in Berkeley, California, U.S., on Friday, April 17, 2020. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)
A medical worker administers a COVID-19 test in Berkeley, Calif., in April of last year. (David Paul Morris/Bloomberg via Getty Images)

“This plan is the gold standard,” Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, told the online newspaper Berkeleyside. “Social distancing, mask-wearing and vaccinations for adults will create the safest environment for in-person education for the end of this year.” (Meyer did not respond to an interview request for this article.)

Mara Kolesas, a political theory professor at the University of San Francisco’s Fromm Institute who once served as Berkeley’s PTA Council president, said she regularly speaks with Meyer on school issues and doesn’t shy away from letting him know that she thinks the union’s insistence on what is viewed as an evolving set of new safety protocols “is unacceptable.”

“I think that the union is trampling the right of kids to [have] public education, it’s as simple as that,” Kolesas told Yahoo News.

An avid defender of teachers and unions, Kolesas said she understands that “the teachers are scared about their safety,” but notes that other countries have returned to in-class education without spikes in new COVID-19 cases.

“My brother lives in Spain, and his four kids have been going to school since September, no problem, so it’s doable,” said Kolesas, who has an 8-year-old daughter and an 11-year-old son in Berkeley public schools.

Both Kolesas and Levi worry that there are still too many issues left undecided in the tentative agreement the city has reached with the teachers' union, and that it could come unraveled before it ever takes hold.

“We’re still not even at a place where we have a schedule negotiated, which means we have pretty much nothing. We’re still at labor negotiations,” Levi said. “Is it going to be the hybrid model, which is four days but only in the afternoon in-person, which both parents and teachers did not like? The other option was two full days [of classes].”

What infuriates many Berkeley parents is that while their public schools have been closed for 11 months, those in Marin County, a 20-minute drive away, reopened in the fall.

One Berkeley parent who, citing tensions in the community, requested anonymity to speak to Yahoo News, said she rented an apartment in Marin so that her children could finally get back in the classroom.

“I’d been following where schools are open, and they were open in Marin County,” she said. “I don’t have $30,000 apiece to send my two kids” to private schools in Berkeley.

Student Brielle Cohan-Hadria, participates in a Zoom lesson from a class overseen by teachers with the YMCA at the Anza Elementary School campus in Torrance on September 17, 2020.  (Genaro Molina / Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Brielle Cohan-Hadria participates in an online class at Anza Elementary School in Torrance, Calif., in September of last year. (Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Further exacerbating an already stark class divide in a school district where nearly 30 percent of public school students qualify for free and reduced-price meals, many parents simply can’t afford private-school tuition. At the same time, they feel stuck watching their children endure subpar education, with fewer contact hours, in an online environment.

Levi said another fed-up Berkeley couple moved their family to Florida rather than settle for another year of Zoom classes. In regular emails, they’ve reported that education in that state continues without major disruptions.

“It shows they had a different outlook and a different framing on how it could be done, and they’ve shown that it can be done and they’ve been in school, whereas for some reason Berkeley has had the longest school closures in the world and it’s still unsafe,” Levi said.

The central issue for many California teachers' unions, of course, is the health risks of returning to the classroom during a pandemic that has already killed more than 500,000 Americans. The risks also increase depending on the age of the students. Berkeley’s highest concentration of COVID-19 cases, for instance, is found clustered around the University of California campus. But a growing body of evidence has concluded that younger students are not significant vectors of transmission for the virus, and doctors in the Bay Area are citing Marin County as an example when arguing that schools should be reopened.

“In Marin County, for example, more than 450,000 ‘student days’ (i.e., tens of thousands of students on school campuses for over 3 months) have been associated with just six cases of school-based transmission. That is, there have been only 6 additional COVID cases resulting from 40,000 students and 5,000 teachers interacting on campus since September,” Dr. Jeanne Noble, associate professor of emergency medicine at UCSF Health, wrote in a January op-ed cosigned by several colleagues.

In their piece, the authors noted that school closures have widened the achievement gap, taken a toll on the mental health of both students and their parents and resulted in dropping attendance rates. Their prescription, now outdated, was to reopen schools on Feb. 1.

BUSD Parents has conducted surveys of more than 1,100 Berkeley families, Levi said, and found “overwhelming support” for reopening schools.

Signs calling for schools to reopen are displayed by people in passing vehicles during an
Protesters at the Students First Coalition rally in Los Angeles earlier this month. (Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

“Families are suffering economically. A lot of people have either had to quit their jobs or minimized work because of having to deal with their kids distance-learning,” Levi said.

Yet that sentiment hasn’t coalesced to a degree that the teachers' unions and local politicians can’t ignore. One reason, Levi theorizes, is that thanks to the many missteps of former President Donald Trump and his administration during the pandemic — from early declarations that it was “totally under control” to the promotion of untested, dangerous treatments — COVID-19 became a political issue.

“A lot of us parent advocates who are working toward reopening schools all talk about the day when Trump announced that he thinks that schools should go five days a week,” Levi said of Trump’s pronouncement in July. In a place like Berkeley, where city government regularly condemned Trump during his term and called for his impeachment, siding with him on something like keeping schools open proved counterintuitive.

“We all knew deep in our hearts that that was going to be the biggest blow to public education because it would create a knee-jerk reaction among Democrats to do exactly the opposite,” Levi said. “Now we’ve been fighting against that political narrative ever since.”

For Kolesas, the debacle of figuring out how to reopen schools has exposed a larger conflict of interest in which politicians who should be pushing to reopen are beholden to the public sector unions.

“A lot of people involved in this have political ambitions, and they are entangled with the union,” Kolesas said. “That’s the way it is. Let’s name the elephant in the room.”

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