By Emily Turner

BERKELEY (KPIX 5) — Parents and students in Berkeley held a sit-in Wednesday, demanding that elected leaders reopen schools and listen to public health officials who deem it safe.

The gates at Thousand Oaks Elementary School were open, but the classrooms and the school were not as Berkeley parents and students sat outside protesting.

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The students were writing letters to the Berkeley Unified School District and staging the sit-in to protest the continued closure of schools due to the COVID-19 pandemic. It is the closest thing to in-person learning exercises these kids have gotten in the last year.

“The risk of not going back to school is tragic. We don’t even have live instruction math at first grade,” said Berkeley mom Lei Levi.

The sit-in comes as UCSF Health professionals call for schools to reopen February 1st. The letter released by doctors said, “California schools should be the first sector of our economy to reopen and the very last to close.”

It argued that the risk to education are far worse than the risks presented by COVID.

“If I was in class, I would learn way more because I have the book right in front of me. But half the time I can’t even find what I should be looking at,” said Berkeley 7th grader Zachary Winslow.

“Distance learning is working better this year, but it certainly isn’t meeting the needs of all of our students, said Trish McDermott with Berkeley Unified. “The entire school community wants to see our schools open when it’s safe and we are able to do that.”

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Right now, schools can’t open because the county is still in the purple tier. But even if that barrier were removed, Berkeley Unified would still have to be remote.

While the district’s remote learning plan has been approved by the county, it is hamstrung by labor negotiations.

“We love our teachers and we are not anti-unions, but it does feel like the union negotiations are still on the table and that’s been the case since September,” said Levi.

Meanwhile, public schools in Marin County are open, and even private schools in Berkeley have in-person learning. Parents and students say it’s a confusing message coming from the entity that’s meant to educate.

“I don’t get why we haven’t even started with procedures to open. It doesn’t make sense to me,” said student Winslow.

Labor negotiations are ongoing and neither side has offered an estimate of when they will conclude.

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The Berkeley teachers’ union released a statement that said in part, “Teachers want to work in person with our students when it is safe. The Berkeley Federation of Teachers is working hard with the district on those plans. We are in discussions with the district on how to equitably serve all students with the same staffing and resources.”