This story first appeared at Newsmakers with Jerry Roberts on February 17, 2021.
Union leaders representing 1,500 Santa Barbara Unified School District teachers and staff workers asked County Public Health officials Wednesday to modify the COVID-19 vaccine rollout to prioritize their members who have been ordered back to classrooms on February 26.
“We urge Santa Barbara County decision-makers to prioritize, with immediacy, the offering of vaccines to school personnel,” Karen McBride, president of the Santa Barbara Teachers Association, and Paul Rooney, president of the California School Employees Association Local 37, said in a letter to top officials of the Public Health Department.
“It seems that with a well-coordinated plan, within two or three days, SBUSD school staff could receive vaccines,” said the letter, the text of which is below.
The call for vaccines for teachers is a local expression of what has become a nationwide push for school personnel to be moved to the head of the line, as parents and communities increasingly demand that classrooms reopen, not only because of the academic learning loss associated with distance learning, but also because of mental health and behavioral issues associated with kids being confined at home for nearly a year as the pandemic spread.
Although the Centers for Disease Control has said teacher vaccinations are not a prerequisite for a return to classrooms, President Joe Biden on Tuesday night became the latest official to call for educators to be a priority.
Newsmakers has asked the S.B. Public Health Department for a response to the letter and is awaiting their response.
—An updated post on February 18 states: Responding to the letter, a statement from the SB Public Health Department called “the limited supply of vaccines…an immediate barrier to the vaccination of educators” and indicated there would be no change in its current distribution protocol. The department’s complete statement is at the end of this story.—
In an interview, McBride noted that the district has ordered hundreds of elementary school teachers and staffers back to work at the end of the month, when some 3,500 K-6 students are to return to classrooms several days a week as part of a hybrid learning program. The district is awaiting final approval from the state for its planned February 26 return.
“If you’re going to mandate them to return, make the vaccine available to those you are mandating,” she said.
Amid a supply shortage, the county so far has been vaccinating health-care workers and residents 75 years and older; those 65 and over this week were allowed to begin trying to schedule a vaccination, but appointments are few and waiting lists are long. Under the current system, teachers will have to wait weeks or months for a vaccine, while interacting not only with students but also with adult colleagues in close quarters once schools reopen, McBride noted.
The letter, addressed to Public Health Director Van Do-Reynoso and Public Health Officer Dr. Henning Ansorg, noted that local officials in Long Beach in January adjusted their vaccine priority list to provide shots for teachers there, and that SBUSD officials have offered to provide locations and logistical assistance for such a program here.
“We have seen examples of cities like ours that have effectively prioritized school staff for vaccinations,” the letter said. “Protecting this essential group of adults would profoundly affect tens of thousands of citizens in our community who are connected to public schools.”
In the interview, McBride cited a survey of parents that she said showed 23 percent of those eligible to send their kids back to school plan to keep them on the full-time distance learning program, a number she said would likely diminish if families felt safer because of teacher vaccinations.
McBride also said that a survey of her members showed that 77 percent were “uncomfortable or very uncomfortable” with returning to class because of fears they would contract the virus.
Here is the statement in response from the Santa Barbara County Public Health Department:
“Vaccinating educators will be a significant step to protect students and staff and we welcome the opportunity to do so. It is frustrating that the limited supply of vaccines are an immediate barrier to the vaccination of educators. As a county, we are vaccinating target groups following the guidance of the California Department of Public Health and the recommendations of the Centers for Diseases Control and Prevention.
“In the past year, we have learned what activities are effective at limiting transmission of the virus and providing a safe educational environment. Young students, especially those under the age of about 12, have much lower levels of transmission and severe illness. The protective measures of face coverings, physical distance, handwashing, ventilation, and contact tracing have been exceptionally effective. Since last September, we have had 32 schools return to in-person instruction under elementary waivers and there are also some secondary schools that also opened in Santa Barbara County when we were in the Red Tier. The number of COVID-19 cases in these schools is low and the majority of cases have been among adult staff who bring the virus from the community to the school setting.
“We will continue the high prioritization of educators for vaccination. We are hopeful that a new vaccine will be approved by the FDA soon and that increasing numbers of doses of COVID-19 vaccine will be shipped to our community. We are committed to distributing the vaccine doses broadly and opening up vaccinations for educators as soon as the vaccine supply allows.”
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