A first-grade student attends class from home on the computer in December. Credit: Amir Aziz

For the past year, a few dozen students have been enrolled in Berkeley Unified’s Virtual Academy, a distance learning option for elementary schoolers that was created this fall as a way to cater to families who didn’t want their students to attend in-person classes during the pandemic.

Intended as a one-year program, it offers about three hours of virtual instruction per day and currently enrolls 39 students in kindergarten through fifth grade, according to the district.

When Superintendent Brent Stephens recently announced that he wanted to cut Virtual Academy next year, he received pushback from parents — many of whom have medically fragile children or family members — who said they were devastated and are asking the school board to continue the program.

“Please do not cut this wonderful program,” said Ann Song, one of many parents that spoke during public comment at two March school board meetings. “It has been invaluable for families such as my multigenerational household with medically fragile members.”

Berkeley Unified also runs two assisted homeschool programs for K-8 students and high schoolers. These long-standing programs, which offer only about 90 minutes of time per week with a BUSD teacher, are designed for students whose families can provide a lot of support at home.

Stephens said that students who are medically fragile or live with a medically fragile person will be allowed to attend independent study classes virtually next fall. But because the other independent study program offers far less instructional time than the Virtual Academy, parents who rely on the program are concerned their students’ needs won’t be met.

The Virtual Academy was started in fall 2021 because of concerns about COVID-19 and the lack of vaccine availability for elementary students, Stephens wrote in an email to parents. It was paid for with one-time COVID-19 relief money and was intended as a “one-year only supplement” to the district’s existing independent study options, he wrote. Stephens said he would “recommend that [Virtual Academy] not be extended to the 22-23 school year” due to the costs of running a program that serves a small number of students.

Edgar Salinas’s second-grade daughter has been enrolled in Virtual Academy this year. Salinas, whose younger child was born premature and whose elderly parents are both at-risk, has been extremely cautious throughout the pandemic, especially after his father-in-law died from COVID-19.

“For us, having this Virtual Academy option is life or death, plain and simple. That’s how it feels,” Salinas said. “I don’t think [my family members] will survive if they contract COVID.”

Salinas worries about his daughter becoming more isolated without Virtual Academy. “Independent study also limits the chances for my daughter to have any other interactions with any other kids,” Salinas said. His daughter has made friends through her online classes this year.

“Do we care about the minority of disabled kids who can’t go to school in person?” asked Hillary Brooks, a parent with an autoimmune disease and a child with multiple disabilities. “Immunocompromised kids deserve to have education.”

Stephens acknowledged that his recommendation “runs counter to the desires of many families in the K-5 Virtual Academy program.”

An end to Virtual Academy will mean that three teachers it employs will have to return in person, too.

Anna Martinez, a Virtual Academy teacher and a mom to eight students who attend the online program, said keeping it running was vital to protect her at-risk family members.

“My children have really thrived in this program because the teachers have gone above and beyond in adapting their lessons to online learning format, and also building critical relationships to make the program a success,” Martinez said at a school board meeting March 9.

“Claims that our program and our teachers are too expensive are similar to claims made when school districts don’t want to spend money on services for students with disabilities or English learners,” Yvette Felarca, a middle school teacher in the assisted home school program, said at a school board meeting March 23. Felarca said the district plans to move a few other remote teaching positions in person, as well.

A final decision about the Virtual Academy program will be made when next year’s budget is approved in June.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...