.How Santa Cruz County Schools’ Vaccine Push Paid Off

By Isabella Backman and Nikk Ogasa

As the 2020-21 school year neared its conclusion, Laura Arnow, a fifth-grade teacher at Pajaro Valley Unified School District (PVUSD), returned to the classroom. Her school—and the rest of the district—transitioned to a hybrid model in which online morning classes are followed by in-person afternoon periods attended by small, alternating cohorts of students. Some students in younger grades were in the classroom four days a week. But before Arnow returned to in-person instruction, she wanted to be fully vaccinated against Covid-19—as soon as possible.

Fortunately, Arnow’s district, and many others in Santa Cruz County, made getting vaccinated a breeze. Partnering with Dignity Health, PVUSD ran a huge vaccination clinic for all of its educators. 

Arnow says that her “streamlined and super easy” experience was a world apart from that of her husband, a teacher in the neighboring Monterey County. He was offered no assistance making an appointment from his district or the county. He instead scheduled an appointment through his own doctor’s office, and received his first jab one month later than his wife.

Santa Cruz schools boast high vaccination rates—92% of the 6,000 school staff members in Santa Cruz County had opted to receive the vaccine as of June 30. Districts in neighboring Monterey County, by contrast, mostly lack data on the number of educators vaccinated. Interviews with superintendents, union leaders and educators in both counties reveal that the high vaccination rate and data availability were driven largely by the proactive measures Santa Cruz schools took to get teachers safely back into the classroom.

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Gov. Gavin Newsom has pushed for California schools to reopen, with a goal of a full return across the state by the fall. Statewide, there are currently no mandates requiring K-12 educators to receive the Covid-19 vaccine. But Santa Cruz County was the first county in the state to offer vaccinations to all school staff.

‘Leadership Matters’

After the first phase of vaccination—in which only healthcare workers were eligible—was completed on Jan. 13, Santa Cruz County Superintendent of Schools Faris Sabbah reached out to local public health officials about moving forward with the vaccination of educators. At that time, however, the governor had announced individuals 65 and older would be prioritized. Local officials told Sabbah that vaccination of school staff wouldn’t begin until all of those 65 and older had a chance first.

“We were concerned about that, because [individuals 65 and older] represented about a third of the population of Santa Cruz County,” Sabbah says. If they waited, he says, it could have been weeks or even months before they could begin vaccinating educators. 

So Sabbah began advocating for allowing both individuals 65 and older and essential workers—including teachers—to begin receiving vaccines at the same time by approaching multi-county entities such as Dominican Hospital. Because these entities had a separate supply of vaccines, they were able to offer vaccinations under their own prioritization system. Sabbah originally proposed to the president of Dominican to help them begin vaccinating kindergarten staff so that they could reopen schools for the county’s youngest students.

“She later told me that she thought that was a good deal, because who could say no to wanting kindergartners going back to school,” he says.

By the end of February, the County Office of Education teamed up with Dominican to start their first clinics for vaccinating educators for the youngest students. The County Office of Education took charge of organizational efforts—creating Google forms for registering educators for clinics, designing an appointment system and using text messages and emails to communicate with school staff.

By also working with Kaiser, Palo Alto Medical Foundation, Dignity Health, CVS and Safeway, the county was able to offer all Santa Cruz school staff—teachers, support staff, office staff, janitors and bus staff—vaccinations by the end of March. The vaccination drive also included educators at Cabrillo College and private schools in the county, as well as teachers who lived in Santa Cruz County but worked elsewhere.

“This is where leadership matters,” says Mountain Elementary School District Superintendent Diane Morgenstern, who attributes Santa Cruz’s lead to its many partnerships. “No one of [these agencies] could have vaccinated us all.”

Sarah Rominger, a math teacher at Soquel High School in Santa Cruz, found the process of signing up for a vaccine accessible and painless.

“It was just as easy as filling out a form, making an appointment online, and showing up at the right time and place,” she says. 

Rominger says that the general consensus among teachers at her school was that they wanted to be vaccinated before resuming in-person instruction.

“It seemed to me an irresponsible decision to put myself in a situation where I’m around students, their families and their communities if I am still at a high risk of transmitting or getting the virus,” she says.

Mary Maleta-Wright is a parent of four young children attending Soquel Union Elementary School District. She says that vaccine accessibility efforts for educators is important to her if “that’s what’s important to the teachers for them to feel comfortable going back to school in-person.”

“I want our teachers to feel safe, respected and like they are being treated like the essential workers that they are,” she says. 

Of the roughly 5,000 school staff members in Santa Cruz County that were offered the Covid-19 vaccine, just 8% declined as of May 5. Anecdotally, it seemed that employees in South County were more resistant at first, says County Office of Education Safety Officer Jennifer Buesing. Over time, however, that resistance seems to have subsided, she says, and the numbers are fairly consistent throughout the county.

Good Times reached out to Santa Cruz County school districts to learn more about the number of school staff vaccinated in each district. Santa Cruz City (92-95%), Bonny Doon Elementary (92%), Happy Valley Elementary (100%), PVUSD (91%) and Pacific Elementary (94%) have vaccinated the vast majority of their staff. Mountain Elementary and Soquel Union only provided the countywide vaccination figure, and Live Oak, San Lorenzo Valley and Scotts Valley Unified declined to respond.

County Line

The County Office of Education continued to host vaccination clinics every weekend for teaching staff, childcare providers and spouses. To reduce vaccine hesitancy, the County Office of Education has also hosted town halls targeting school staff with a local pediatrician.

“There was a lot of false information out there,” says Buesing. “We spent a lot of time doing meetings, education and town halls to really get the accurate information out there.”

Of those that declined, she adds, some were holding out for the rollout of the single-dose Johnson & Johnson vaccine, while others wanted to “wait and see,” she says. She hopes that as more and more school staff get vaccinated, this hesitancy will continue to decline.

Because the county was in charge of the scheduling process, they could see what percentage of slots were unused after they were allocated. This process gave them an estimate of the numbers of educators who had opted for the vaccine. In contrast, in Monterey County teachers ended up accessing vaccines through a variety of providers once Monterey’s Phase 1B of the vaccination process began. This made it much harder to determine how many teachers had been vaccinated.

Good Times filed California public records requests with all of the public school districts in Monterey County, asking for data on the current percentage of teachers vaccinated. None provided that information, although two districts provided survey data that revealed the outlook of teachers earlier on in the vaccination process.

Greenfield Elementary School District issued an online survey on Jan. 15 to its employees asking about interest in the vaccine: 74% of employees expressed interest in vaccination, 16% were unsure and 10% had no interest.

Santa Rita Union Elementary School District said that as of March 2, 0.4% of its teachers had already been vaccinated, and the number of employees who wished to be vaccinated immediately was 92.8%. Another 4.6% expressed potential interest in vaccination at a later date, and only 2.1% of employees were not interested.

No other Monterey County districts responded with data in time for the publication of this article. According to the Monterey County Office of Education, there are 17,663 education employees in the county. These include staff at the Office of Education, charter schools, public school districts, higher education, and substitute teachers.

“We don’t collect data on who has been vaccinated,” said Jessica Hull, Monterey County Office of Education spokesperson. “But I can say that every education employee who’s desired a vaccine has received one.”

The larger county was slower to vaccinate its teachers than its northern neighbor. According to Monterey County Superintendent Deneen Guss, early on the state delivered fewer vaccines to Monterey County than Santa Cruz County, because the state granted more vaccines to counties with “multi-serving agencies” like Kaiser. “The supply that we were getting in those early months was very limited,” says Guss.

When Santa Cruz County was first opening clinics for teachers to receive vaccinations, Monterey County teachers could only look to their healthcare providers, who prioritized vaccinating clients 65 years and older. It wasn’t until Monterey County began opening vaccine appointments during Phase 1B of its vaccination process that educators could access the vaccine. During Phase 1B, educators could obtain vaccines through their own healthcare providers and when available at county-coordinated clinics. This included Arnow’s husband, a teacher in the Salinas Union Valley District.

“We didn’t have a district coordinated program … to aggressively vaccinate the teachers,” he says. “But I was vaccinated before I had to go back into the classroom.”

The first of the clinics coordinated by Monterey County for educators began on March 3 at Soledad Community Health Care District. The county connected school districts to healthcare providers to coordinate clinics at locations like Natividad, Soledad Community Health Care District and Mee Memorial.

According to Guss, Santa Cruz County also assisted in the vaccination of Monterey educators. When Monterey County reached out to Santa Cruz, the northern neighbor offered up open vaccination slots to the southern county. “When they had some additional vaccine supplies that they could help us with, [Santa Cruz County] actually did allow some of our educators to take some of their [vaccine appointments] so that we could get some of our educators vaccinated,” says Guss.

Looking Forward 

Over the year to come, the challenge of distributing booster shots will arise in both Santa Cruz County and Monterey County, says Salinas Valley Federation of Teachers President Kati Bassler. She hopes for a smoother rollout in Monterey County when boosters are due. “We’ve gotten through this storm, now we have to look for what’s next,” Bassler says.

Now that all educators in Santa Cruz County have been offered a vaccination, Dr. Sabbah has set his sights on encouraging students to follow in their teachers’ footsteps. Unlike staff, he says, convincing students to attend one of the district’s vaccine clinics has been more challenging—based on the same process they used for teachers, he estimates that only 30-40% of students have opted to sign up for a vaccine appointment. He plans to get youth excited about the vaccine by increasing the appeal of the clinics—by providing cookies and boba, playing music and offering selfie opportunities with a life-sized Anthony Fauci cutout. The district also plans to launch a social media campaign to get parents on board with youth vaccinations. According to Guss, Monterey County educators are taking similar steps to encourage youth vaccinations.

Santa Cruz parent Mary Maleta-Wright says she is grateful for the steps Santa Cruz County has taken so far. She says she feels “extremely safe” sending her children back into the classrooms. In addition to vaccinated staff, Maleta Wright says she appreciates the additional safety precautions her school takes such as requiring masks, taking temperatures and staggering dropoff and pickup times.

“I would like to tell teachers how grateful we are for everything that they have been through in the past year,” she says. “They showed flexibility and positivity through it all.”


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