Teachers should be among the first vaccinated, BUSD urges

Update, Dec. 10: The board approved the resolution during their meeting Wednesday night.

Original story: Berkeley Unified School District is calling on the state legislature to make teachers among the first people prioritized for the COVID-19 vaccine, once it begins to be made available to the public later this month.

The board will vote Wednesday on the resolution, which calls for teachers and classified staff to be prioritized in the first tier of essential workers who receive the vaccine. Currently, state guidelines for this tier include essential workers in direct health care or long-term care settings and residents of skilled nursing and long-term care facilities. The school resolution asks that teachers receive the vaccine promptly after these two groups.

BUSD’s vaccine resolution — which district officials say is the first to advocate for teachers in the state — asserts that leaving schools and teachers out of this first group, or giving them the vaccine much later, could intensify and prolong the effects of school closures throughout the state.

“When our schools cannot open, children suffer, and many parents and guardians of children who cannot go to school — many of whom are themselves essential workers — suffer as well,” the resolution says. “The inability to safely open schools has threatened the long-term educational outcomes for many students, especially our most vulnerable students; the mental and physical health of many students; the lives and livelihoods of many families in our community; and the local and state economy.”

Schools in Berkeley closed down immediately before the state instituted shelter-in-place orders in March, shutting down most non-essential industries for several months. Though several later received the greenlight to open, like outdoor dining, personal care services and retail, schools in Berkeley and across the state have struggled to meet the extensive list of requirements required to allow all students back on campus.

Currently, Berkeley Unified is operating one of the few in-person school programs in the Bay Area, with small cohorts of elementary school students spread across multiple campuses. There are fierce divisions among families who want their children to return to campus, and other community members and teachers who don’t believe it’s safe.

Amid surging COVID-19 cases throughout the state, Bay Area health officers last week handed down some of the strictest guidelines on shelter-in-place activities since March. The pilot programs are allowed to continue, but it could complicate reopening plans for middle and high school students in January that the district has said will rely on low rates of community transmission, as well as local restrictions.

Ty Alper, BUSD vice-president, said it’s part of the district’s obligation to speak out on behalf of teachers across the state, and take steps to ensure the most robust reopening possible.

“This resolution does not mean that we cannot reopen until all of our staff are vaccinated, but it’s a recognition that vaccination of our staff removes a significant challenge to opening our schools and keeping them open,” Alper said, addressing concerns from community members that BUSD is resigned to reopening until the vaccine is fully administered. Sup. Brent Stephens has also dismissed this idea in the past, saying BUSD’s reopening will foremost focus on community spread and rules set by local health officers.

The district was inspired to draft the resolution after receiving a letter from parent Anna Weinstein, who has a 10th grader at Berkeley High and another student who passed through Berkeley schools. She told Berkeleyside she was shocked when she read the state’s plan for vaccine distribution, and saw K-12 schools were mentioned only once, in the context of planning for several other groups.

I kind of connected the dots and I just became alarmed with the reality that there’s a real risk of failure to reopen our California public schools in fall of 2021, and that put ice in my heart,” she said.

She said the district acted quickly to support her recommendation, and a safe school reopening is an absolute necessity for a functioning society.

“Fall 2021 — that’s the floor — that should be the floor of what we’re going to accept. That has to be our collective goal,” she said. “We have to achieve that, now that we have these vaccines that are going to be rolling out.”

A COVID-19 test site in Berkeley. Photo: Pete Rosos