Ty Alper is the president of the Berkeley school board.
Ty Alper is the president of the Berkeley school board.

Virus and vitriol: Berkeley’s Jewish school board president reflects on Covid

Berkeley school board president Ty Alper used to love meeting parents and community members out and about. After all, both he and his wife grew up in Berkeley and are raising a family there. But, he admitted, once the pandemic hit and schools shut down, things got a little hairy.

It wasn’t the virus. It was the vitriol.

“For the most part people were not like, ‘We love the school board! We really appreciate our public officials!’ at this time,” he said with a laugh. “Most people were not saying that. Most people were upset. And so that made it a little less fun to go out.”

But Alper took it in stride. He told J. that as a parent himself he understands the stress and frustration parents went through with the schools closed. He felt that part of his job as an elected official was to absorb that emotion.

“The only thing that I could do [was] just, you know, help make the best decisions we could, given the circumstances, that featured our values,” he said. “And to recognize that people really did need an outlet for their anger. That was a service: to be there.”

It was March 12, 2020 when the Berkeley Unified School District announced it would shut down all its schools, which serve almost 10,000 students. Since that day a year and a half ago, Alper and the school board have sat at the helm as the city went through the turmoil of distance learning, a pivot to reopening and now the question of a vaccine mandate.

“The last 18 months has felt like four or five years,” Alper said.

Alper, 47, is one of the school board members who supports making it a requirement for kids 12 and up to be vaccinated in order to come to class, but he doesn’t think it should be a hard rule. Instead, he supports an option for weekly testing, which Berkeley — and other Bay Area cities — are right now requiring for school staff.

“We don’t want to kick kids out of school, we want to encourage them to get vaccinated, and so we’re trying to go with this middle ground where we’re creating a mandate that I do think will result in more kids getting vaccinated,” he said.

A vote on the matter is expected on Oct. 6, he said, to determine whether Berkeley joins Los Angeles, Culver City and Oakland in requiring vaccines in some way for public school kids.

Alper said he’d rather that guidance come from the state, however, just as it does on vaccines for measles or chickenpox.

“The state isn’t doing it, which I think is sort of an abdication of their responsibility, because state public health officials have kind of implied that they think it’s a good idea, but they haven’t actually mandated it, and they left it to the local districts,” he said.

We don’t want to kick kids out of school, we want to encourage them to get vaccinated.

That puts districts in the position of making public health decisions they’re not necessarily qualified to make, he said, and creates a patchwork across the Bay Area as each city charts its own path.

“California law essentially gives to the state public health department the right to decide which vaccines are mandatory for local districts,” he said. “That’s not really something that you would think the districts should figure out on their own.”

But since they have to, they will. At a recent BUSD board meeting, there were a few voices against the idea of mandating vaccines and also strong voices in support, but the atmosphere was civil.

Alper said the fact that there wasn’t vociferous debate on the issue actually was a good thing; if vaccination wasn’t the hottest issue for the school system, that meant Covid-19 wasn’t ravaging the schools (there were 27 confirmed cases in September for all of BUSD’s 20 schools, which went back to full time in-person learning this fall).

“The majority of our students who are eligible are vaccinated, the vast majority of our staff who are eligible — which is all of them — are vaccinated,” he said. “So I think this is an important issue for us to figure out, but I wouldn’t say it’s the most important.”

He said top of his mind was balancing the expenses of Covid-19 safety protocols, including contact tracing and testing, with other district priorities, such as ongoing problems with sexual harassment (notably at Berkeley High School) and changing up how students are assigned to middle school. All of that would be made harder by looming budget cuts.

Dealing with Covid had been expensive, Alper said, even with additional funding from the state and federal government.

“We’ve had to spend all this money on contact tracing and testing — I mean hundreds of thousands of dollars on this! — which has enabled us to keep everybody in school, or most kids in school, even when there’s positive Covid tests,” he said. “But it’s just so expensive, so we’re just going to have to make some really tough strategic budget cuts to fund things.”

Alper and his wife, Tamar Todd, both went to Berkeley public schools, then became lawyers working with clients sentenced to death (Todd now works on drug policy reform). Alper currently teaches in Berkeley Law’s Death Penalty Clinic, where he works with law students on active death penalty cases. The couple has three kids; the youngest recently had his bar mitzvah at Kehilla Community Synagogue in Piedmont.

Alper, the nephew of Noah’s Bagels founder Noah Alper, said that when he thinks back to his own school days in Berkeley’s public schools, the lack of a level playing field shocks him. It’s also what motivates him.

“It was essentially a zero-sum game, so I had every advantage at the expense of kids of color who didn’t have that sort of political or social capital within the district, and I think about it a lot,” he said. “That’s another motivation, to sort of make up for that.”

He ran for school board the first time in 2014 on a platform that included finding alternatives to the then-existing policies on expelling kids. He was reelected in 2018 and thinks the playing field still isn’t level enough, but he doesn’t plan to run again next year.

“I think eight years is a long time, and a good amount of time,” he said.

Until then, though, Alper has one more year to work on getting Berkeley schools over the impact of the pandemic.

“We’re doing great things right now and the teachers are really excited to have the kids back in class and it’s going really well,” he said. “But we also won’t know the whole repercussions of 18 months of distance learning for a long time.”

Maya Mirsky
Maya Mirsky

Maya Mirsky is a J. Staff Writer based in Oakland.