Students at Gateway School wear masks as they work on their computers.
Students at Gateway School, a private school in Santa Cruz, went back to the classroom in the fall. Public schools are still awaiting hybrid learning or full re-openings.
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)
COVID K-12

Vaccine showdown: Schools here can apply to re-open, but in-person classes unlikely until teachers get doses

In a remarkable display of unity, teachers’ unions from eight of the county’s 10 public school districts joined forces in a letter to county Health Officer Gail Newel on Friday, asking her to reconsider her stance on letting at least some teachers get the COVID-19 vaccine now.

A showdown that is affecting when a large swath of public elementary schools across Santa Cruz County might fully reopen was playing out on Friday, pitting a coalition of teachers’ unions against the county’s health officials.

The county has crossed an important threshold, as COVID-19 case rates are now low enough that schools can apply to resume in-person classes for students in grades six and below. But this is unlikely to happen anytime soon, as educators and public health officials are at odds over whether teacher vaccinations should be a condition for a full return to the classroom.

COVID K-12

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“We work by evidence, and advocacy is not going to change our mind,” county health officer Dr. Gail Newel said Thursday when asked about whether teachers would be moved up in county vaccine prioritization.

Newel has maintained that it’s best for everyone older than 65 to be vaccinated before moving on to teachers and others. She also agrees with Gov. Gavin Newsom that vaccination is “a desired but not a necessary component” of reopening schools.

“Until the evidence around our decision changes, we won’t be changing our approach with county vaccine,” she said during a press conference Thursday.

In a remarkable display of unity, teachers’ unions from eight of the county’s 10 school districts joined forces in a letter to Newel on Friday, asking her to reconsider.

“We want students to safely return to schools,” they wrote, noting that “all staff that work with students should be vaccinated, for the health and safety of school staff, students, families, and the entire community.”

Education remains, as it has throughout the pandemic, a contentious issue, and school plans are proceeding very differently depending on the county they’re in, and along the public-private divide.

In nearby Los Gatos, schools just concluded their first week of in-person classes since re-opening. Meanwhile, the city of San Francisco is suing its own school district in an effort to force schools to bring students back into the classroom. Locally, many private schools have been hosting in-person instruction for months.

Teachers are technically eligible for vaccination now according to state guidelines, as they are part of phase 1b, tier one. But local health officers have the authority to prioritize within those guidelines, and Santa Cruz has joined several other Bay Area counties in choosing to adhere to strictly age-based guidelines for the time being.

In a news release earlier this week, Newel said people over 65 account for 90% of all COVID-19 deaths in Santa Cruz County and agreed with a health official from Marin County who said vaccinating someone over the age of 75 would be “300 times more likely” to save a life than vaccinating based on occupation.

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Newel added during Thursday’s press conference that the age-based restriction will change in the future, dependent on vaccine supply, which has been anything but steady here. She said she is hopeful the county could allow occupation-based vaccination to begin “in a matter of weeks.”

According to Santa Cruz County Superintendent Faris Sabbah, public schools are not likely to reopen until teachers and staff are eligible for vaccination in greater numbers. Vaccination “is a condition that some of our labor unions are stating needs to be in place,” Sabbah said. “That’s why it is so important to vaccinate our staff, even if it’s just one grade at a time.”

Nelly Vaquera-Boggs, president of the Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers and a signatory to the letter, said that teachers and support staff need to be vaccinated to ensure the safety of everyone. “We’re still in purple. It’s still not safe,” she said. “If we’re going to open schools in purple, teachers need to be vaccinated.”

Teachers agree that being in a classroom is the best way to teach, Vaquera-Boggs said, but they want to make sure it’s safe.

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Casey Carlson, the president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers, said one proposal they could bring to Newel is vaccinating just the teachers of the youngest students. “Would she be willing to at least compromise, like vaccinating the kinder, first and second, so we are at least bringing the little guys back?” Carlson said.

Sabbah is aligned with the teachers’ unions in that he would like Santa Cruz County to reconsider the age-based vaccination guidelines. He pointed to other counties, such as Alameda, where they are allowing teachers to begin vaccinations alongside those 65 and older.

But in the press conference yesterday, Newel made a change to the county policy seem highly unlikely. “Right now, because of scarcity of vaccine, we’re really focused on saving lives,” she said. “That’s why the older folks are getting priority over teachers and other occupational based groups.”

Santa Cruz County Health Officer Dr. Gail Newel
Dr. Gail Newl
(Kevin Painchaud / Lookout Santa Cruz)

As of Friday, 33,998 doses of the vaccine have been distributed in Santa Cruz County, according to a state dashboard. To put that in perspective, there are about 15,000 health care workers, first responders, pharmacists and others who are first line to be vaccinated countywide, followed by about 44,000 people 65 and older. Since each person needs two doses of the vaccine, that means roughly 118,000 doses would be needed to vaccinate just the people in those groups.

There about 7,200 teachers and other school staff countywide and 40,000 K-12 public school students, Lookout has reported.

Newel also said in Thursday’s press conference that she agrees with Gov. Gavin Newsom’s statement earlier this week that vaccination is “a desired but not a necessary component of reopening our schools safely, especially the K through six.”

“Those are the kids that need the classroom situation more, and they’re at very low risk for spreading disease throughout the community to each other and to the educators,” Newel said.”Where we’re seeing spread within the education system, it’s generally adult to adult, and in situations like break rooms or in social situations, outside of the school setting.”

Carlson does not agree with the designation of vaccines as “not necessary” for elementary school teachers.

“Everyone is saying that kids need to be in school and teachers are so valuable,” she said. "[It’s] not logical to me that if you’re saying teachers are valuable, that you don’t value them enough to give them a vaccine.”

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