Local teachers are among the few in the state who have returned to classrooms amid the COVID-19 pandemic and they have united loudly and clearly behind one thing: they want to be vaccinated. And their wish seems to be coming to fruition with the announcement from San Mateo County today, Feb. 11, that it will expand COVID-19 vaccinations beginning Feb. 22 to teachers and child care providers, first responders, and food and agricultural workers who are eligible under the state's Phase 1B, as supply allows.
Teachers union presidents from five county public school districts — Portola Valley, Los Lomitas Elementary, Woodside Elementary, Menlo Park City and Hillsborough City — wrote to County Health Officer Dr. Scott Morrow and San Mateo County Health chief Louise Rogers on Jan. 15, urging the county to vaccinate teachers, especially those — such as themselves — who are teaching students on campuses. Teachers from these districts began in-person instruction as early as September, but San Mateo County teachers have not been scheduled to receive doses of one of the two COVID-19 vaccines.
"This requirement puts these teachers in direct, physical contact with large numbers of students and other adults most, if not all, days of the week," the union presidents wrote. "Such contact increases dramatically the likelihood of disease transmission and offers a stark contrast between educators working in a distance-learning environment and their counterparts in the physical space of a classroom ... It is our hope that you share that concern and will accord special status to teachers who are already on campus every day doing their jobs despite the risks they face."
CalMatters reported this week that faced with a limited supply and dueling priority groups, many of California's largest counties haven't started offering teachers vaccines.
Some counties expect to begin vaccinating teachers in the coming weeks, but several others said that the scarcity makes it difficult to project when their teachers should expect to be vaccinated. Currently, San Mateo County is vaccinating people over 65 years old and healthcare workers (the state's first designated priority group).
John Davenport, whose union represents 57 teachers in the Portola Valley district, decided to share the letter with The Almanac after union members began to talk earlier this week about striking if they aren't vaccinated soon.
"People weren't paying attention," he said. "To take it to another level, we said, 'Why don't we just try to get out story out there?'"
Davenport said the mood among teachers has darkened since the district first reopened in the fall.
"Teachers came back and thought (the pandemic) will be over soon," he said. "Now with new variants, people are really becoming nervous, they feel very much every day that we are putting ourselves at an increased risk."
In the Las Lomitas district, the majority of K-8 students attend school on campus five days a week, and the Las Lomitas Education Association strongly advocates prioritizing in-person teachers to receive COVID-19 vaccines, said teachers union co-presidents Martha Lampert and Heather Peterson in a Feb. 10 email.
"We have demonstrated that we can operate school safely when all teachers and staff are healthy," they wrote. "In the meantime, however, there are few substitute (teachers) available and operating the technology and in-person protocols requires a specialized skill set. It would only take a few teachers out to shut down our schools, due to cohort and contact restrictions. If we want to keep schools open, our best guarantee is to vaccinate our teachers as soon as possible."
Most other school districts in the county have stuck with distance learning. La Honda-Pescadero Unified and Redwood City Elementary School District were not included in the letter, but are also holding in-person instruction (with Redwood City open in a more limited capacity).
Rogers noted in an email Feb. 11 that "given the persistent shortages in the supply of vaccine to meet the needs of everyone who is eligible, and the likelihood it will take time to receive adequate supplies, the County Office of Education has been leading the effort with local schools and the major health care providers for education personnel to design the approach."
County education leaders have developed a prioritization and logistics plan for school employees, according to a Thursday newsletter from the Redwood City school district. The stages of this prioritization process are as follows:
Priority 1a: All in-person special day class teachers and instructional aides
Priority 1b: All teaching and support staff required to report in-person interacting regularly with students and their families, including teachers and instructional assistants; child nutrition staff; maintenance, facilities and operations staff; psychologists, occupational therapists and physical therapists; support staff working on campus such as office personnel and yard duties; and school site leaders such as principals and assistant principals.
Priority 2: All staff reporting in-person at sites or district facilities who are not required to interact with students, but who interact with the public and are reporting for work in-person (including the district office staff).
Priority 3: All teaching and support staff who are currently not working in-person, including teachers conducting distance learning lessons.
San Francisco teachers, who have been teaching remotely, are set to begin receiving the vaccine on Feb. 24, Mayor London Breed announced this week.
The plea from local teachers unions comes the same week that state Sen. Josh Becker, D-Menlo Park, called for San Mateo and Santa Clara counties to set aside a week to vaccinate teachers and school district employees who have direct contact with children.
With San Mateo County averaging 9,000 doses per week, and the number of teachers in the county at 5,000, Becker said that the overall numbers allow for a countywide vaccination effort that can be managed efficiently.
"This is doable," Becker said. "Vaccinating teachers and beginning to safely reopen schools will be the most meaningful move yet to return to normalcy for everyone."
The Portola Valley, Woodside and Menlo Park districts' governing boards passed resolutions late last month in support of vaccinating teachers. The Menlo Park district noted in a Feb. 9 newsletter to parents that school nurses and other staff who qualify are already receiving their vaccines.
"We are so proud that we have been open for in-person learning since September, and also offer a rigorous virtual academy," said Portola Valley Superintendent Roberta Zarea in an email Feb. 9. "The success of our in-person program hinges on our stringent safety protocols. We are anxiously awaiting news on when our staff can receive vaccinations."
San Mateo County Office of Education Superintendent Nancy Magee explained that the state's vaccine distribution plan has been quickly evolving, "resulting in confusion and anxiety," in a letter to local families sent Feb. 4. Magee is working with district superintendents, the county health department and healthcare providers such as Kaiser Permanente to develop a plan for rolling out the vaccine to local educators. The Office of Education has surveyed public and private school staff, and in case the vaccine supply continues to be restricted, worked with school district superintendents to develop criteria for prioritizing access, she said.
The criteria give priority to staff members in the county who are working in any in-person capacity with students, starting with staff from schools with the highest percentage of students who qualify as socio-economically disadvantaged, English learners and foster youth. Magee is also exploring options to expedite mass vaccinations of school staff.
"The most critical factor in understanding the vaccine rollout is to know there is a shortage of vaccine not only in our county, but across the state and the country," she wrote. "This challenge is real and is significantly slowing efforts to advance through the priority tiers. It is also confusing that despite every county in California having the same guidelines to follow, each region has a different combination of vaccine supply and eligible population sizes. This means that some counties are able to start vaccinating individuals in group 1B, and others are not."