School notebook: Ultra-low vaccine rate at Berkeley school; prizes for kids fighting waste, vaping

Group of about 20 kids with a couple adults in the back. Posed photo. Holding signs that say "reuse" and "rethink."
Students at Oxford Elementary got a surprise visit from the Sierra Club on Wednesday. The organization gave them an award for their “zero waste” classroom and sustainability club. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Are Berkeley kids vaccinated?

A small Berkeley private school is topping lists going around of California schools with low immunization rates.

At the Berkeley Rose Waldorf School, 29% of the 21 kindergarteners enrolled in 2017-18 were vaccinated, according to state data. Figures from that year are the most recent to be released by the California Public Health Department.

With measles cases reaching a quarter-century high in the U.S., there has been renewed focus on vaccinations in recent weeks and months. Just over 500 of the 704 people who’ve contracted the highly contagious disease this year were not vaccinated, according to a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Most of the outbreaks have occurred in “close-knit communities,” especially in New York.

At Berkeley Unified’s public elementary schools, the kindergarten vaccination rates were all 95% or higher in 2017-18. A few years ago, several of those schools reported vaccination rates below 90%. (And in 2014, the rate for Berkeley Rose Waldorf was 13%.)


The second lowest rate in Berkeley in the latest batch of data was at École Bilingue, where 82% of kindergarteners were vaccinated in 2017-18. [Update: After publication, Cécile Gregoriades, director of communications at École Bilingue, told Berkeleyside that the school is private and accredited by the French government and thus admits kindergarteners who turn 5 by December 31, after the cut-off date for public schools. Kids must be vaccinated by age 5, so some students are not yet vaccinated by the time the school has to report data to the state in October, she said. After that date in 2017, 90% of kindergartners were vaccinated, and in 2018-19, that figure leapt to 97%, according to Gregoriades.]

Jessica Prentice, the director of Berkeley Rose Waldorf, declined to answer questions about the vaccination rate at her Southside school.

“We are in compliance with SB 277,” she said. “Like all other schools, we follow the law, and there’s not much else to say.”

SB 277 is the 2015 California law that prevented schools from enrolling students who are unvaccinated because of personal beliefs. Previously families could seek exemptions from mandatory immunization based on personal beliefs or medical conditions. The medical exemption is still in place.

As a private school, Berkeley Rose might admit younger students than public schools, as is the case at École Bilingue, potentially accounting for part of the low immunization rate.

This week, all school and child care centers in Berkeley got a letter from the city’s public health officer encouraging vaccination, said city spokesman Matthai Chakko.

“Vaccination is an easy, highly effective protection from measles,” said Lisa Hernandez, the city’s health officer, in a news release sent Wednesday evening. “Protect yourself, especially before you travel abroad.” Most of the current outbreaks stem from an unvaccinated international traveler coming into contact with an unvaccinated population in the U.S., according to the city.


All Bay Area health officers are sending out similar messages this week, prompted by the recent outbreaks, Chakko said. There are no current cases in Berkeley or Alameda County.

Berkeley Rose Waldorf was first named on SFGate, which noted that seven other Bay Area schools have kindergarten immunization rates of less than 50%. Nearly all the others are in Sonoma County.

Sierra Club prize for going plastic-free

A woman leans down to look at metal cups and spoons, being shown to her by a small boy.
Oxford third grader Alexander Sasha, 8, shows City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who’s a local Sierra Club chair, his class’s reusable cutlery. Teacher Jacqueline Omania watches in the background. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

The Sierra Club is more than 120 years old, but its latest honorees are only eight or nine.

On Wednesday morning, a third grade class at Oxford Elementary got a surprise visit from the director of the Sierra Club San Francisco Bay Chapter, Minda Berbeco, and Berkeley City Councilwoman Sophie Hahn, who is chair of the chapter’s Northern Alameda County Group.

The local group nominated teacher Jacqueline Omania’s Oxford class and her “Heirs to Our Oceans” environmental club for the Sierra Club’s Emerging Voices Youth Award, and the whole Bay Area chapter selected the kids as the winners. They will be honored at an awards dinner in San Francisco.

The class and lunchtime club have garnered attention recently for virtually eliminating their use of disposable products and advocating for sustainability policies throughout the city and district.


During the Wednesday visit, the “zero waste” students did not “waste” a minute trotting out their accomplishments.

One boy showed the visitors the miniature compost bin containing the entirety of the classroom’s trash for the year — mostly the plastic wrappers that come on mandatory district-provided math material. Another student showed off the metal forks and spoons collected from a cutlery drive, and yet another held up the class’s reusable towels. According to class calculations, those efforts have spared more than 3,000 plastic disposables this year.

“I had trouble when I was growing up imagining that what I did really mattered. All I can say is you guys have already done more than a lot of adults,” Hahn told the kids, eliciting cheers. “You will all go on to have a huge positive impact on the world — that’s why you got this prize.”

On Wednesdays, all Oxford students use metal cutlery in the cafeteria, instead of disposables. Photo: Natalie Orenstein

Hahn had met some of the students previously, including when they came to a City Council meeting to advocate for Berkeley’s new reusable foodware ordinance. The students wore waste-decorated vests they’d created and gave speeches on the urgency of sustainability. The council passed the ordinance, which Hahn had spearheaded, unanimously. Omania’s students and their peers from other schools also advocated for the new BUSD sustainability plan.

Now that the city has taken a major step to eradicate single-use foodware, the Oxford class is trying to get the whole school, and even the entire district, to follow suit. The school already has “waste-free Wednesdays,” where kids only use metal cutlery in the cafeteria. But since there is no dishwasher, a parent volunteer has to bring it all home weekly to wash and return.

“Since the city of Berkeley is disposable-free, shouldn’t the young people growing up learn disposable-free ways?” Omania said. “That’s what school is about, learning how to be in the world.”

When they heard the news that they won the Sierra Club award, the Oxford students cheered and shot fists into the air. But they had one quibble with the organization honoring them.

“Can we call it the Sierra Group?” asked Alina, 8. “Clubs are exclusive.”

In other Oxford news, the school is set to remain at its North Berkeley campus for “at least” another year.

The school community had been preparing to relocate to the district’s West Campus for 2019-20 to make way for a major modernization project. Facilities Director John Calise sent a message to families last month saying more engineering work and analysis are needed before the project can move forward, however.

“At this point in time, the future of the planned modernization remains to be seen,” he wrote.

“Cotton candy, wintergreen/gummy bears, jellybean”

Berkeley’s youngest students aren’t getting all the glory this spring.

Willard Middle School’s Peer Educators won the Alameda County Office of Education’s tobacco prevention PSA contest.

The students’ public service announcement is a rap and pop culture-laden video about the perils of vaping and falling prey to Big Tobacco. The students work with counselor Jen Antonuccio.

This story was updated shortly after publication to include new information from the city of Berkeley.