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Vaccinations for San Diego educators, other essential workers could start in 2-3 weeks

Dr. Edith Lederman fills a syringe with Pfizer vaccine at a vaccination super station at CSU San Marcos.
(Bill Wechter)

School employee vaccinations will be prioritized for schools that are open or have signed agreements to open

San Diego County teachers and other essential workers may get access to COVID vaccinations as soon as two to three weeks from now, County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher said Thursday.

In addition to school employees, child care, emergency services and food or agriculture workers are next in line to get vaccinated.

Fletcher said school employee vaccinations will be prioritized for schools or districts that have already opened or have signed agreements to open, pending administration of the vaccine — which may encourage districts that have been hesitant to reopen.

But San Diego Unified, the county’s largest school district, isn’t just waiting for teacher vaccinations to reopen — it also is waiting for local COVID case rates to decline, the district said Thursday.

The district said it is committing to in-person learning for the fall of next school year, but expanding in-person learning for the rest of the current school year depends on coronavirus case rates and the speed of vaccinations.

“In-person reopening for the fall is a shared commitment by both district leaders and educators, and could lead to a fuller reopening of some schools this year depending on the pace of the vaccine rollout and case-rates reductions,” the district said in a joint statement with its teachers union.

Kisha Borden, president of the teachers union, said educators are “thrilled” that vaccine appointments could be opened to teachers within weeks.

“We also don’t want to lose sight of the need to ensure that our classrooms are safe for students and their families, and the continued need to follow state and county guidelines to reduce case rates to a level that is no longer in the purple tier,” Borden said in an email. “Educators are hopeful that vaccines, a lower community spread and mitigation measures at our schools will allow San Diego Unified to offer further in-person learning opportunities for our students.”

Fletcher announced the teachers’ place on the vaccine timeline as a growing chorus has been calling for teachers and other school employees to be vaccinated immediately, to help schools reopen.

This week, San Diego Mayor Todd Gloria and 10 other big-city mayors signed a letter to the state, asking it to immediately prioritize COVID-19 vaccines for teachers of transitional kindergarten through second grade. The mayors also suggested that once the first dose of the vaccine is made available to teachers, school districts should be required to reopen the grade levels of teachers that were offered the vaccine.

“Reopening schools and providing access to safe, in-person learning is a critical equity issue for large, urban school districts,” the mayors wrote in the recent letter. “Distance learning is particularly hard for our most vulnerable students and the longer these students are left at home, the wider the already existing opportunity and achievement gaps will likely become.”

Educators in California are technically eligible now to receive the COVID vaccine.

But many counties, including San Diego, have not yet opened vaccinations to teachers and are waiting until they vaccinate more people age 65 and older. The majority of COVID deaths are people 65 and over.

County officials, who are struggling with low vaccine supplies, said they want high demand for vaccination appointments to recede before opening vaccinations to teachers and other essential workers

“There is presently not enough vaccine to do everyone who is out and about to control the spread,” Fletcher said during a Thursday press conference. “And so the supply of vaccines we have is dedicated towards saving lives.”

County officials are hoping to see a surge in vaccine shipments by early March that could help the county begin vaccinating essential workers, Fletcher said. The county is working now to set up vaccination sites dedicated to school employees for when that happens.

Some community members, however, said teachers should have been vaccinated at the same time as people 65 and older, to help schools reopen.

“A last-minute change of plans by our county leaders pushed educators further down the line, negatively impacting our students and our school communities,” said Kate Bishop, a PTA council board member and Chula Vista Elementary school board member. “While our county cannot control supply issues stemming from the state level, they have full jurisdiction over when to grant educators vaccine access and many counties in our state have done so.”

In their letter, Gloria and other mayors stressed that they do not support having teacher vaccinations as a prerequisite for opening schools “when research suggests otherwise.” The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and Gov. Gavin Newsom have said teachers do not have to be vaccinated before reopening schools, and some San Diego County school districts have been open since September or October, long before vaccinations became available to the public.

In addition to Gloria, the letter was signed by the mayors of San Francisco, San Jose, Sacramento, Oakland, Fresno, Stockton, Bakersfield, Anaheim, Riverside and Santa Ana.

Vaccines have become a sticking point keeping some districts from reopening, as some teachers unions resist returning educators to campuses until they are vaccinated.

“San Diego educators, parents and school district leaders want to reiterate our desire for a return to in-person instruction as soon as it is safe to do so,” said Brandi Krepps, vice president of the Escondido Union Elementary teachers union, during a Wednesday press conference. “But until San Diego County grants vaccine access to educators, schools’ closures will be unnecessarily prolonged, and those schools that do open will continue to experience the yo-yo effect of opening and closing due to repeated school and staff quarantines.”

Community COVID case rates also are keeping schools from reopening, but the county’s case rate is declining and getting closer to the threshold for allowing schools to reopen. The state is barring still-closed elementary schools from reopening until their county’s case rate dips below 25 per 100,000 residents, while middle and high schools can’t reopen until the rate falls below 7 per 100,000.

The county’s current case rate is 34.

Some teachers union leaders said they disagree with the mayor’s proposal to force districts to return when the first vaccine dose is offered to teachers. They said schools should open after teachers actually receive the vaccine and the vaccine reaches its full effectiveness, typically a few weeks.

“I would be hesitant to endorse sending any teacher back to the classroom without the opportunity to be fully covered by both doses of the vaccine and the two-week period to ensure the full effectiveness,” said Julie Walker, president of the Sweetwater Union High School District teachers union.

Borden said San Diego teachers were disappointed by the mayors’ letter. She said teachers should get both vaccine doses and achieve immunity before returning to campus.

“It was especially disappointing to see that Mayor Gloria signed on to the letter, as he hasn’t spoken to educators to hear the challenges we and the District are facing to safely increase in-person learning opportunities while also still offering distance options to the many parents who aren’t comfortable returning in person at this time,” Borden said in an email.


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