An unpredictable COVID-19 vaccine supply and lack of statewide coordination has school districts across California struggling to figure out how to vaccinate their teachers and other school staff — and equally importantly, when.
After health care workers and staff at long-term care facilities, teachers and other school employees are included in the next phase (Phase 1B) of the state’s vaccine rollout.
But when they actually get vaccinated will depend on how many doses come into the state and are made available in each county, if there are sites to distribute vaccines and whether their counties have finished vaccinating health care workers and nursing home residents in Phase 1A of California’s roll out plan.
Interviews with county schools chiefs and district leaders indicate wide disparities in how far along school districts in different parts of the state are in vaccinating school staff.
There is widespread agreement on the importance of vaccinating school employees. To that end, earlier this month Gov. Gavin Newsom moved teachers higher on the state’s vaccination list in an effort to get schools reopened. The California Teachers Association has said that vaccinating school staff is important to reopening schools safely, along with robust testing and tracing programs, improved ventilation systems and the cleaning of school campuses.
And many local school leaders agree. “Immunization is a critical step in our ongoing efforts to ensure that students, teachers and school staff get back into the classroom as quickly and safely as possible,” said Steve Herrington, Sonoma County superintendent of schools.
Yet Sonoma County is vaccinating medical workers in Phase 1A and hasn’t yet vaccinated school staff. One problem, Herrington and other superintendents say, is just getting reliable information on vaccine availability.
“The states don’t have perfect visibility into the volume of supply they’re getting,” said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner, in an interview last week, alluding to some of the challenges facing California. “And, at the same time, they’re still trying to make sure the rules for distribution take into account fairness, the impact on society, the health risk to individuals. That’s a complicated Rubik’s Cube to solve.”
At the county level, local departments of public health are charged with planning how vaccines are dispensed, according to the California Department of Public Health. In small counties, that could be as simple as the county health officer sitting down with the county school superintendent to set up a few vaccination clinics. In larger counties, planning could require extensive coordination between the health department, the county office of education and officials from multiple school districts and charter schools.
California’s counties with smaller populations have generally been quicker to complete vaccinating health care workers and move on to school employees. Many teachers and school staff in Mariposa, Alpine, Lake, Mendocino and El Dorado counties have already received their first dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. But a few larger counties like Riverside are also vaccinating teachers.
Complicating the timeline for school reopenings is the time it takes for the vaccine to fully protect staff from the virus. To be fully vaccinated, each person must get an initial vaccination and then a booster shot three to four weeks later. Recipients are expected to be fully protected by the vaccine a week after the last vaccination.
El Dorado, a county east of Sacramento, with a total population of 193,000 people and 3,500 school employees, is further ahead than many in the state. School staff in the county began receiving their first doses of the vaccine last week. While it will likely take until mid-February to vaccinate all school employees who want it, county Superintendent of Schools Ed Manansala is optimistic.
“The sense of hope and promise in El Dorado County, it shifted this week,” he said. “When you start seeing people having access to vaccinations within our sector — the education sector — this is good news.”
Alpine County makes strides in vaccinations
Things are even further ahead in Alpine County, the state’s least populated county. A single vaccination clinic for the 70 school staff members on the eastern side of the county and another to vaccinate the 20 educators on the western side of the county was all it took to vaccinate all willing school staff against COVID-19 in the first week of January. A majority of the staff — 86% — opted to get the vaccination.
The challenges are immeasurably greater in Los Angeles Unified — by far the state’s largest school district, with about 600,000 students and 49,000 staff members. However, superintendent Beutner said the district is “uniquely situated” to open vaccination clinics at school sites when vaccines become available.
District schools are accessible to the community and have the security, refrigeration, electricity, restrooms and space needed to be used as vaccination centers, Beutner said. The district also has 450 registered nurses, 120 licensed vocational nurses, and health care providers who have been assisting with the district’s COVID-19 testing program, who can give vaccinations.
Established district infrastructure, like a transportation system that can move vaccines from deep freezers at district sites to refrigerators at school sites just before their use, and an information system developed for COVID-19 testing that can be used for scheduling and tracking vaccinations, would be useful in running vaccination clinics, Beutner said.
On Monday Beutner sent a letter to local and state health officials asking them to immediately authorize the district to vaccinate not just school staff, but community members too.
“There’s a unique and important benefit to having Los Angeles Unified as a vaccination partner — doing so will help reopen schools as soon as possible, and in the safest way possible,” Beutner wrote.
Sacramento County in holding mode
Sacramento County school staff are also waiting for the county to complete Phase 1A of COVID-19 vaccinations. But when vaccines are available, Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools Dave Gordon says a comprehensive plan will be needed to vaccinate the county’s more than 20,000 school employees quickly.
Gordon has been working on the plan, which is expected to be completed soon, with the Sacramento County Department of Health Services and all 13 school districts and charter schools in the county.
“I want to really emphasize that the interest of the governor is not to open a school here and there, but to do it at scale if we can,” Gordon said. “Our plan includes every school district in the county and charters.”
The plan would have school staff all vaccinated within a specific period of time, Gordon said.
Mark Billingsley, a middle school computer science and digital media teacher in the San Juan Unified School District in Sacramento, is eager to be vaccinated against COVID-19 so that he can return to the classroom.
‘We all want retro be on campus’
“We all want to be on campus, and we all know the value of face-to-face learning,” he said. “If a vaccine gets us back on campus that much quicker I am all for it.”
Even success stories like El Dorado County, one of the few that is moving ahead with vaccinating its teachers, underscore the haphazard nature of the vaccination landscape right now.
School leaders thought they’d have about a month to put together a plan to roll out vaccines to school staff when they met on Jan. 8 to start the process. The following Monday afternoon the Office of Education was alerted by the county health department that the vaccine was available and began to work on a plan that all 15 school districts could use. Tuesday the superintendents of the districts met to discuss the plan. That afternoon teachers were being vaccinated.
Officials from the El Dorado County Office of Education came up with a template districts could follow. First, educate employees with fact sheets on both the Moderna and Pfizervaccines, and videos narrated by doctors. Second, send out a survey to gauge staff interest in vaccinations. Third, provide information on how to get vaccinated at either a public health clinic or Safeway pharmacy.
Officials from the county office also asked school districts to designate one person to act as a point of contact with the county and to put together a spreadsheet that breaks down the staff by school site and includes the names and contact information of all who are interested in being vaccinated. Districts also set up a process to notify staff when vaccination appointments are available.
Manansala is proud of the vaccine program that the county put together, and he hopes the template can be used by others. His office has already helped Lake Tahoe Community College launch a similar program on the other side of the county.
“This is going to happen in every county, right? All of a sudden it’s going to be ‘the vaccines are here,’” Manansala said. “And then, how districts and county offices roll it out will be really important.”