by Mark McDermott
The board presidents from six local school districts have issued a letter to the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health and Supervisor Janice Hahn asking that education workers be prioritized for COVID-19 vaccinations.
The letter was submitted Tuesday and signed by the board presidents from Manhattan Beach, Hermosa Beach, El Segundo, Palos Verdes, Torrance, and Redondo Beach school districts.
“Since last March, our devoted teachers and staff have remained the unsung heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic,” the school board presidents wrote. “Every day, these employees have worked tirelessly to support the needs of our students and their families. They have taught our children remotely and in hybrid mode, supported our childcare programs, distributed meals to those in need, provided services required under IEPs, and cleaned our campuses following strict safety protocol. And now, as other industries in LA County continue to re-open safely, education fails to be a prioritized consideration in the conversation about what is best for public health.”
The letter demanded that teachers as well as all school employees working in-person, in schools be immediately prioritized for vaccines and suggested anything less would jeopardize the safe return to classroom education.
“The ability to welcome all students into classrooms again should not be contingent on our employees having access to a vaccine,” the letter said. “If you fail to prioritize all school staff in your inoculation opportunities, you are creating barriers to public education for those who feel strongly about that level of protection.”
MBUSD board president Jennifer Fenton said that local educations are simply attempting by every means possible to make it possible for all students to return to classrooms.
“We are trying every day,” Fenton said. “We’re advocating for the students, and we’re advocating for the teachers, just trying to get back.”
Tracy Miller-Zarneke, president of the El Segundo Unified School District school board, said that although every precaution has been taken and every effort has been made to implement COVID-19 safety protocols to protect school employees and students, nothing would ease concerns as much as vaccinations.
“If you are working with people, doing important work right now, you should have access to the vaccine,” she said. “And that’s all we’re asking: please give them access. Please put them ahead of people who are just sitting at home….I mean, these are literally frontline workers doing very important work. So I don’t understand why that’s not a priority.”
Matthew Brach, president of the Palos Verdes Unified School District school board, said that currently teachers are prioritized as essential workers but not at a higher priority than other employees deemed essential. The letter seeks to give teachers higher priority.
“Teachers are now lumped in and will be in the same tier as grocery workers and everybody else,” Brach said. “They are still not prioritized over any other essential workers. And [vaccination] supply is the limiting factor, so if we really want to get our students back into school, teachers should be the priority. Now, we don’t want to make vaccination the linchpin regarding whether or not a teacher comes back, but anything we can do to make them feel more comfortable, to make them feel more safe, will translate into a better experience for our students. If we have a stressed out teacher who’s fearful of working in the classroom, it’s not the same experience as a teacher who feels safe and is ready to engage with their students.”
Hahn said she’d received the letter and agreed with everything in it.
“I agree with the South Bay School Board Presidents who reached out to me,” she said. “We want our schools to reopen safely and stay open and if that means vaccinating our teachers, then we should try to do that as soon as possible. School districts should prioritize the teachers and faculty who are already on campus to be the first in line.”
California’s vaccine rollout has lagged, ranking 35 out of the 50 states in vaccinations per capita, according to the CDC vaccination dashboard. Only a little more than 10 percent of the state’s population has been vaccinated, compared to a national average of over 17 percent. Governor Gavin Newsom on Monday expressed doubt that at this rate schools could fully reopen this school year.
“When you’re receiving less than 600,000 first doses a week, and you start to do the math… then we need to be honest with people, and let them know… that it’s very unlikely that we’ll be able to accomplish that very idealistic goal before the end of the school year because of the scarcity of supply in vaccinations,” Newsom said.
But Newsom also expressed hope that a new framework that would prioritize school workers could be agreed upon this week. LAUSD superintendent Austin Beutner suggested that at the very least the state should aim at getting all elementary schools open, which would require 25,000 doses in his district.
Brad Serkin, president of the Redondo Beach Unified School District school board, said the estimated number of vaccines needed for all employees in the six districts represented by the six presidents who issued the letter to DPH Tuesday was between 10,000 and 12,000.
“For Redondo, it’s approximately 1,000 [vaccinations] for all teachers and staff,” Serkin said. “I think collectively, it’s at least 10,000 plus.”
Fenton said that the board presidents all understand that vaccine allocation is limited but the letter is simply a request to make sure school workers are at the front of the line.
“We know that there’s a problem,” she said. “That goes without saying. But when these doses are released, could you please prioritize all educational workers? Not just the teachers, but what about the aides? What about the janitorial staff? Everybody who’s on campus and interacting with our children.”
No local employee unions have made vaccination a prerequisite for returning to campuses.
“It started out as a demand but they’ve softened on that substantially,” Brach said. “And they understand that with the supply being as short as it is, they are not going to make vaccination a requirement to return.”
Fenton praised all the employees, and particularly the teachers, who have borne the brunt of a challenging educational situation. Teachers in particular have come under fire from some frustrated parents. Fenton defended the teachers and the education that they have delivered under trying circumstances.
“We call them the unsung heroes in the letter, and it’s true,” she said. “In March, they shifted completely to an entirely different learning model, and they prepped over the summer to come up with an even better distance learning format. Now our kids are getting an incredible education. It’s not as though teachers aren’t teaching; it’s not as though kids aren’t learning….There’s been some really remarkable learning that has occurred over the last year. We just want our kids and our teachers back in the classroom. The villainizing of our teachers isn’t fair because they are doing a lot of work and really carrying a huge amount of weight right now. We all recognize that. I am forever grateful to our teachers.” ER