The Berkeley Unified School District, or BUSD, Board of Education determined a booster shot will be required for all eligible and nonexempt students and staff in order to comply with its vaccine mandate.
During its Wednesday meeting, the board approved amendments to its current policies for both students and teachers, changing the definition of “fully-vaccinated” to include the COVID-19 booster shot for those deemed eligible by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
This update comes amid a COVID-19 surge across the United States, including in Berkeley, where there are currently 6,990 cases and an average of 133 new cases daily over the past week, according to the City of Berkeley COVID-19 Dashboard.
BUSD has also been conducting its own testing and data collection by providing on-site surveillance testing, sending home iHealth tests and encouraging parents to submit outside testing results, noted BUSD Superintendent Brent Stephens.
About 75% of students also reported “unique tests,” or tests conducted outside of BUSD-provided testing. From these unique tests alone, there has been a 3.01% positivity rate as of Wednesday, according to Stephens.
During the public comment section, Berkeley community members such as Yvette Felarca expressed concern about the dangers of keeping schools open at all, despite vaccine mandates.
“Public officials like the school board are betting on a long shot and they’re gambling with our lives, the lives of our children and overwhelmingly the lives of Black, Latina, Latino, immigrant, working class and poor communities,” Felarca said during the meeting.
Those who are not fully vaccinated with a booster shot will still be mandated to test for COVID-19 weekly, according to district policy.
Though testing has increased, there has also been an increase in staff shortages, both due to COVID-19 and other circumstances, Stephens added. These shortages have led to unfilled classrooms, larger class sizes, a decrease in staff and student support services and a heavier workload on present teachers.
“We have reached a point of critical shortage of staff in our schools,” Stephens said during the meeting.
Similarly concerned with staff shortages, Matt Meyer, president of the Berkeley Federation of Teachers, advocated for distribution of KN95 masks, better enforcement of mask-wearing and the requirement of vaccines for employment, including the booster when eligible.
To address these shortages, the district has offered an increased rate of pay for substitute teachers of $300 per day and plans to pull more staff from the district office, Stephens noted. Additionally, the district will combine multiple classes into larger spaces.
Absent rates for the past few days have been comparatively higher than they were in the first two weeks of December, with a 15.24% absent rate Monday and a 12.70% absent rate Tuesday, where the average absence rates for the first two weeks of December were 6.4% and 8.22%, Stephens added.
“We’re currently investigating cases in the double digits across multiple school campuses,” Stephens said during the meeting.