BERKELEY, Calif. (KGO) -- Seventy-two students in Berkeley returned to in-person learning in three public schools Monday, in small cohorts of eight. The students will go to school every day from 9 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
"It feels really good to have kids coming back to school. We only have two cohorts of eight right now because we're trying to be very, very cautious about how we go about it," said Vanessa Flynn, the principal of Rosa Parks Elementary, one of three campuses allowing in person learning.
"It feels really good because we know that it means a lot to their families and to them and to their education. It's very small and very measured and very incremental, very cautious. We've done tons of preparation, in terms of our entire facility, making sure as you see that it's all marked in terms of where children stand, there's a one way. There's only one way to walk just like at the grocery store," she explained.
Flynn said they handpicked the students who returned Monday, but families had the option to continue learning at home.
"These students are the students who really need extra support accessing distance learning. And there may be different situations at home where there isn't the supervision that's needed or access to technology."
Relieved parents told stories of distance learning difficulties at home.
"He has been really struggling to stay focused. He has been doing his distance learning by himself and to have YouTube anytime he wants is a temptation that is hard to resist," explained Matt Ruby about his fifth-grader.
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"I'm a single parent so he would stay with my brother so I couldn't support him as much as other parents, it was hard," Alejandra Hernandez said about her third-grader.
Protestors were also part of this first day. A caucus of activists within the teacher union held signs warning of the dangers of COVID-19.
"It doesn't matter how many temperature checks you do, the virus is going to spread. And we just think it is unacceptable to force ESL learners and special ed back to school during a pandemic," said Hoku Jeffrey of the Equal Opportunity Now By Any Means Necessary caucus.
Parents worried the protest may scare the kids.
"I appreciate the right to free speech. Kids are having a hard enough time and then to see adults opposed to them coming back to school is a confusing message and it doesn't achieve much," Ruby said.
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The Oakland Education Association also urged caution, pointing ABC7News to a statement made by president Keith Brown a month ago.
"We stand by our safety criteria. Any return to in-person instruction must be negotiated and will be brought to members for a ratification vote," said Brown.
Hernandez said she did not feel forced to send her son to school.
"He could have stayed home if he wanted but we wanted to see how this would play out. He was excited to see everybody. I knew it wasn't going to be big groups," she said.
The school district is aiming to return all elementary school students to a hybrid in-person learning plan in January. They do not have a date at this time for when middle and high school students will return.
However, don't expect many other East Bay districts to follow suit on a pre-January reopening any time soon.
VIDEO: Some Berkeley students return to classrooms, while other East Bay districts hold-off
Besides Berkeley, the only other district in Alameda County planning to offer at least some in-person classes before the end of the year is Piedmont Unified, which plans to offer a hybrid model starting the first week of December.
So far, 77 of 80 re-opening plans received by the Alameda County Office of Education have come from private or parochial schools.
"As a county, we don't have the authority to declare schools open and then each just opens the doors," explained Michelle Smith McDonald, a spokesperson for the Alameda County Office of Education. "Each district has to make a determination about their preparedness to open based on a number of factors, scope and scale, the size of their facilities, agreements with their labor partners."
Today in Berkeley, union activists greeted arriving families with signs warning of the dangers of re-opening amid the ongoing pandemic.
In short, most East Bay districts don't envision any return to in-person learning until January 2021, at the earliest.
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