KTVU - Amid calls and protests for public school to immediately reopen in the Bay Area, Governor Gavin Newsom announced that he’s reserving 10% of the state’s vaccine doses—75,000 each week—for teachers beginning on March 1.
Under Newsom’s new plan released Thursday, teachers will get a code to make vaccine appointments online. Depending on the vaccine supply, it may be a matter of weeks before California teachers all have the vaccine.
Some of California’s 300,000 teachers, all of whom are included in the current 1B vaccination phase, have already been vaccinated. But many teachers who haven’t, and their unions, say they don’t feel safe to return unless they’ve been vaccinated and schools improve ventilation.
Certain Bay Area public schools, such as Barron Park Elementary in Palo Alto, and many schools across the country, have been open since the fall. Hundreds of teachers and school staff across the country in open districts have died. Critics of teachers' unions say it’s safe to reopen, that teachers are selfishly blocking students from essential learning and development, and that online learning exacerbates and creates mental health problems for students.
"I think it's very interesting because at the beginning of this pandemic, teachers were like the superheroes of the world, and then fast forward, and now the script has flipped," said Chaz Garcia, lead negotiator for the Oakland Education Association, the city’s teachers’ union. "I think it's important to remember that this is not something that educators have created, that this is a pandemic. And actually, the conditions in which we teach have prevented us from going back."
Critics of the Oakland Education Association, and teachers’ unions across the country say that in-person instruction can be safe without vaccinating all teachers, and that schools must return to in-person learning as quickly as possible to mitigate the current, severe impacts on achievement gaps. Garcia says teachers agree with all those points. But they also don’t want to die.
"I think that would be okay, if you were just going to get sick, but people have died," she said. "I lost a colleague. I found out the other day—two days ago, from COVID. These are lives." Although that colleague did not catch the virus due to in-person instruction, Garcia said that it’s important to emphasize that teachers don’t exist in vacuums—they serve, and are part of, larger communities.
She feels reopening schools is "an equity issue, because we're losing folks in the black and brown community." She said she thinks "a lot of those calls" to reopen schools now "are not coming from within that community."
The process to receive a vaccine if a person is eligible is not centralized; people who are eligible may elect to get the vaccine through their healthcare, at a local pharmacy or mass vaccination site, or through their county. Information about vaccine eligibility and access is available on the state website My Turn California, where Californians can also sign up to receive alerts about making vaccine appointments when they’re permitted.
The timeline for when Californians in group 1B, which includes education and healthcare workers, will all get the vaccine is unclear. Because the distribution of vaccines is taking place through both public and private channels, it is difficult to ascertain a specific, concrete timeline. A representative from Kaiser Permanente wrote in an email that the company is "currently vaccinating healthcare workers, residents of long-term care facilities, and people 65 and older, starting with those at highest risk of exposure or complications due to COVID-19."
The supply of vaccines has been a recurring issue at both smaller sites and mass vaccination events. There are currently not enough vaccine doses in the state available for everyone who is eligible.
"Supply is still limited but increasing — The state of California has increased our weekly vaccine allocation to better match the number of members we serve," the Kaiser representative wrote. "For example, next week we’re scheduled to receive 20% of California’s vaccine supply. As we get more supply, we’ll continue to include additional groups by looking at age, health risks, and job types."
Alberto Nodal, Vice President of the San Lorenzo Education Association, and a kindergarten teacher at Colonial Acres Elementary, said that he believes it’s important for teachers to get vaccinated to mitigate the numerous unknown factors about the virus, and to protect teachers with health problems.
"One big thing is that there's a sense of guilt, that I can't be in-person to give the instruction I know I can do best," Nodal said. "But I, at the end of the day, have to take care of myself and make sure that I'm healthy—as well as alive."
Guidance on school re-opening from the CDC released February 12 states that "access to vaccination should not be considered a condition for reopening schools for in-person instruction."
The CDC guidance centers testing, mask use and physical distancing. The guidance also notes that as multiple COVID variants circulate globally, "it is possible that due to increased levels of community transmission resulting from a variant of SARS-CoV-2, mitigation strategies and school guidance may need to be updated to account for new evidence on risk of transmission and effectiveness of mitigation."
"The union stance is, we don't want members to return unless they have been vaccinated, just because there are so many unknowns," Nodal said. "Especially because our special ed and our younger elementary are the first to return, it's even more so important to have vaccines, because many of those students either can't wear masks, or don't understand social distancing, for one reason or another."
An Intercept report found that research suggests that open schools, in districts with low community transmission, don’t impact community spread. But what about if community transmission is high? In that case, it can be risky to open schools, and schools may indeed spread the virus. That’s what data suggests happened in Florida schools, particularly among children ages 14-17.
Many teachers and their unions, including Garcia and Lorenzo, say that poor ventilation in old buildings is something that teachers will be stuck with, and that it could be dangerous. That’s another area where the concept of "equity" enters—schools with less funding may be unable to modify classrooms to safe standards of ventilation, especially in bathrooms, gyms and lunch rooms.
"I think it's really important to take into consideration—we have to compare apples to apples, and that we're not in the same situation," Garcia said of Oakland Public Schools versus nearby, open, private schools such as Head-Royce School. "We're all educators and we're all working with kids. But the context really matters."
Teacher-to-teacher transmission has been documented at concerning rates, according to a recent CDC paper which analyzed data from in-person instruction at Georgia public schools. Since teachers may live with essential workers, or with roommates—as housing is unaffordable for many teachers in their Bay Area district—this is not a fact that teachers are taking lightly for themselves and for their communities at large.
Garcia said that "communities of color are being hit disproportionately, and that those sicknesses are leading to deaths. And that if we look at even in Oakland, the case rates, and the death rates in two or three of our zip codes, which are all black and Latino neighborhoods, are extremely high."
So, what do teachers want?
"Teachers want to return," Nodal said. "Teachers want to be teaching in front of their students. But we want to open our schools when schools are safe, not only when teachers are vaccinated, but also when we know that our families, who are essential workers—who are out there every day risking their lives to be able to support their families—to ensure that they're vaccinated as well."
Caroline Hart is a digital reporter and producer with KTVU. She covers unemployment, inequality, food issues, breaking news, and more. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.