The teachers of a transitional kindergarten class at Barron Park Elementary School in Palo Alto, Calif. on March 2, 2021, which resumed in-person instruction in October, organized desks to be socially distanced, placed plastic barriers on top of desks and planted six-foot markers on the floor to ensure students adhere to COVID-19 protocols. (Jana Kadah/Bay City News)

By Friday, Santa Cruz County will have offered the vaccine to all of its education staff.

That means by the end of the week 100 percent of the roughly 5,000 K-12 teachers and staff who want the vaccine would have at least one dose offered, Santa Cruz County Office of Education Superintendent Faris Sabbah said.

Many surrounding counties have just started offering the vaccine to education staff, in addition to other essential workers, at the end of February, so how did Santa Cruz County beat them to the punch?

“We had already been partnering with Dignity Health since the beginning of February,” Sabbah said.

Dignity Health is a multi-county entity that gets its own vaccine allocation in the state. By early February it had already vaccinated its clients 65 years and older, so it had a slew of extra vaccines.

“And so, we partnered with them to move into the vocations. They started doing farmworkers and other groups and so we partnered with them to work on education,” Sabbah said. “And they basically helped us vaccinate about 70 percent.”

This week, the county got an additional allotment of 1,000 vaccines from state — enough vaccine to offer to the remaining 30 percent of staff.

Sabbah said the county office of education worked with its 10 school districts and Dignity Health to create a Google Forms system that allowed staff to input their information and get appropriate appointment times, prioritizing those who work in K-2 grade levels, and slowly moving up the age range.

And now with majority of its teachers vaccinated, nearly all schools will resume in-class instruction by mid-April.

“Our bargaining units basically said they were not going to participate in memorandums of understanding for reopening without vaccination,” Sabbah said. “So once we were able to begin the vaccination process we started with kindergartener and TK … that allowed us to begin the planning for opening in person.”

Scotts Valley Unified School District has already resumed in-class instruction for its transitional kindergarten and kindergarten grades. By March 23, all of its grades will be back on campus.

Four of the school districts — Mountain Elementary School District, Pacific ESD, Santa Cruz City Schools and Scotts Valley USD — will have all their elementary schools back on campus before April.

A calendar of Santa Cruz County’s elementary school reopening plan. (Courtesy of Faris Sabbah)

Happy Valley ESD, Live Oak, San Lorenzo Valley and Soquel Union will begin with younger students returning by mid-March and all grades in person by mid-April.

Pajaro Valley Unified, the county’s largest school district with about 20,000 students, will start resuming in-class learning a month behind the others because it is located in Watsonville — a COVID-19 hot spot in the county.

It will gradually reopen starting April 5 and have all its grades back on campus by May 1.

Watsonville has more than half of the county’s COVID-19 cases, despite making up 18 percent of the population. The city’s population is mostly Latinx, a group also disproportionality impacted by the virus, according to the county’s data dashboard.

The Latinx population comprises 54 percent of cases, but 33 percent of the population.

But Sabah said the state’s $6.6 school reopening legislative package, set to be approved on Thursday, may make some districts consider moving up their start date so that they can receive additional funding.

Under the state’s plan, counties in the state’s red tier for reopening must open its K-2 grades by March 31 to qualify for additional funding allocated from the package’s $2 billion to provide money for additional personal protective equipment, air filtering improvements and other safety measures.

The county is currently in the state’s purple tier, but Dr. Gail Newel, the county’s health officer, predicted last week that it will move into the red tier in one to two weeks.

Most teachers quickly scheduled an appointment, despite ‘small percentages’ declining to take the vaccine.

In Pajaro Valley Unified, about 20 percent of staff declined to get inoculated, citing concerns over personal medical conditions and desire to wait longer to get the vaccine, Sabbah said.

In the other districts, about 8 to 10 percent of staff have declined.

“I think that there’s a variety of different reasons they declined vaccination, but generally speaking, we’re trying to have a very positive kind of campaign to promote vaccination for folks,” Sabbah said. “And it has seemed to work.”

The superintendent also noted that inoculations have been going so well in the county, especially in the education field, that it has already vaccinated more than half of its licensed childcare staff and 50 percent of its community college staff as of Wednesday.

The county also has about 200 residents who work as educators in Monterey County, and Sabbah said they are reaching out to assist with vaccinations.

However, the nearly 500 residents who work with Santa Clara County will get inoculated there.