Key step toward a campus return: Kindergarten teacher vaccinations set table for more formal school plan
LOOKOUT EXCLUSIVE: Moves to get the educators and staff that oversee Santa Cruz County’s youngest students vaccinated may set in motion a game plan for the return of in-person learning.
The bulk of Santa Cruz County’s kindergarten teachers were expected to receive the first dose of the Pfizer coronavirus vaccine by the end of Tuesday, laying one key piece of groundwork for a wider return to in-person learning as counties across the state scramble to vaccinate school staff.
Organized vaccinations of teachers and school staff began in the county last week, though not in the numbers education officials had previously planned.
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Because health officials are continuing to prioritize those ages 65 and up with their limited vaccine supply, the Santa Cruz County Office of Education instead turned to private health networks — reaching an agreement with Dignity Health to vaccinate 600 teachers and other school staff at two clinics held at Dominican Hospital over the past week.
About 200 doses were administered to child care workers and preschool staff at the first clinic last Thursday, according to Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah.
On Tuesday, more school employees — including transitional kindergarten and kindergarten teachers, aides and support staff, like custodians and front office workers — were invited to receive their first dose, out of 400 available. Each will have a follow-up appointment scheduled three weeks after their initial shot.
“Our goal is to move forward with the opening of our schools,” Sabbah said. “And so we felt that targeted approach, grade level by grade level, is going to give us more flexibility as we’re making our plans and working with their labor unions to be able to look at the opening of our schools.”
No additional vaccine clinics for schools staff are scheduled, but Sabbah said he is hopeful to arrange for more and is continuing talks with Dignity and Sutter/PAMF.
“We don’t know if there’s going to be more,” he said. “That’s really up to Dominican, whether they actually have the vaccines or not, but we’re going to continue working with the (multi-county health entities) like Dominican/Dignity and Sutter in hopes that they’ll partner with us to be able to vaccinate our school community.”
Dignity Health referred a request for comment on the partnership back to Sabbah.
After Tuesday’s latest batch of shots is administered, Sabbah is hopeful the majority of the county’s kindergarten teachers will have received their first dose. That group includes roughly 200 teachers countywide, he estimated.
“If it helps us with reopening schools and bringing more kids to in-person, it’s going to be huge for the community,” Sabbah said of the vaccination push. “It’s a really important effort that we are focusing on.”
For the Santa Cruz City Schools, all 16 kindergarten, transitional kinder and pre-school teachers should have received their first vaccine dose by the end of Tuesday, according to Superintendent Kris Munro.
As has been the case for counties across California, a dearth of vaccines means local officials have had to adjust on the fly and tensions over who should receive the precious shots that remain.
County education officials had initially planned to vaccinate all 6,000 teachers and staff working in the public school system and at Cabrillo College at clinics hosted at the college between Feb. 1-12. Second doses would have been administered there in early March.
Those plans fell through as the vaccine doses anticipated by education officials never arrived.
With the vast majority of COVID-19 deaths in Santa Cruz County concentrated among people ages 65 and up, county health officials have been focusing much of their vaccination efforts so far on that population, including those who are uninsured or groups that have barriers to care or have been disproportionately affected by the virus.
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Union representatives for teachers across Santa Cruz County welcomed news of the initial vaccinations, even as they continued to call for local health officials to include schools staff in their guidelines — and cautioned that a wider return to in-person learning would take time.
“If we really value getting kids back in school, we would be simultaneously vaccinating educators right now,” said Casey Carlson, president of the Greater Santa Cruz Federation of Teachers.
Labor leaders have said that vaccinating teachers and support staff is a key prerequisite to reopening schools under a hybrid in-person and remote model, a transition local districts have planned for since the summer.
This week — as pieces for an eventual return to more in-person learning, including the vaccinations for teachers, have been falling into place — excited emails from kindergarten teachers landed in the inbox of Carlson.
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“We’re incredibly grateful and thankful to Dignity for reaching out and wanting to help get teachers and school staff vaccinated,” she said. “And also very thankful to Faris Sabbah. He has done an incredible job of advocacy for educators in Santa Cruz County.”
What the vaccinations mean for the prospect of a wider return to in-person learning wasn’t immediately clear. Sabbah said he was unable to estimate a timeline, citing the various moving parts.
Nelly Vaquera-Boggs, president of Pajaro Valley Federation of Teachers, said she has not discussed specific plans around a phased return to campuses. But she added that the idea has been on the table since the summer and said it can be inferred “with the targeted grades.”
“What we’re seeing now with — thankfully — the agencies that have provided vaccines for our preschool teachers and our kindergarten teachers … is to prepare for that early phasing or the phasing of early grades,” she said.
The phased approach makes sense to Vaquera-Boggs and is consistent with discussions the union has had with Superintendent Michelle Rodriguez since the summer. Still, she currently views the prospect of kindergarten students returning to campus in March under a hybrid model as too optimistic.
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So far, about 11.5% of Santa Cruz County residents have been given a first dose of vaccine and roughly 2% have received both doses, according to Santa Cruz County Health Services Agency spokeswoman Corinne Hyland. An online dashboard shows the county has received 28,050 doses of vaccine to date, with 16,395 distributed and another 11,655 allocated.
Many of the multi-county health agencies, like Dignity, have “reached saturation” vaccinating their patients 65 and up and are now moving into the next sector which includes teachers, Hyland said in an email to Lookout.
“Teachers typically have health insurance, so getting their vaccinations through a MCE makes sense,” she wrote, adding that once the county “reaches saturation” for those 65 and older who meet the criteria, it, too, will move to the next sector, again focusing on those without insurance or facing barriers to care.
Sabbah said he has talked to County Health Officer Gail Newel about changing the guidelines and is continuing to advocate for teachers to be included.
“We’re continuing to advocate strongly that we would like the vocational groups to be included — that we not wait until all 65 and older are vaccinated before we go to the vocational,” he said. “We can do both.”
Other challenges to a broader return to in-person classes remain.
“The other thing that we’re working on collectively as a county is figuring out how we can increase the cadence of surveillance testing to meet the requirements outlined by (the California Department of Public Health),” said Munro, the superintendent for Santa Cruz city schools. “Currently we don’t have the capacity to test all of our staff and students every week, and we’re really grateful to the county office of education getting the districts set up with Valencia labs.”
The district’s preliminary ventilation report — a priority for its union — is also finished, with the final report set to come out by the end of this month, according to Munro.
Carlson, who leads the union for Greater Santa Cruz, also sees the ventilation report as an important piece for an eventual return to more in-person classes.
“That has to be completed, as well as people getting vaccinated in order for it to be safe,” she said. “But I think we’re almost there.”
Carlson said her union is supportive of a grade-by-grade return and is in agreement that the youngest students need to go back first.
“As a union, we’re committed to being in person, as soon as the ventilation report is complete, the (personal protective equipment) is available, and we have the vaccine,” she said. “And so we’re really excited.”
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For teachers, families and students, like most anyone, the past year has been fraught with constantly changing health guidelines and an evolving picture of how the virus works.
Munro, the City Schools superintendent, said she recognizes the experience has been frustrating for both families and teachers.
“When we had to make the decisions to move to distance learning in March of 2020, none of us believed that we would still be in distance learning in February 2021,” she said. “This year has been about managing the unpredictable and ever-changing information, and we know this has been incredibly challenging for families and students and our employees and our community, and we’re so grateful to everyone for their work in continuing to partner with us and continue education in a very different way.”