SAN JOAQUIN COUNTY, Calif. — Starting Friday, San Joaquin County schools will take a big step on the road to fully reopening their classrooms.
Coronavirus vaccinations for the county’s 20,000 school employees will take place on certain days throughout February and March at the San Joaquin County Office of Education’s (SJCOE) Stockton campus.
“It was a pleasant surprise, and it kind of came out all of a sudden… last week and said ‘Hey, this is happening," said Rob Van Noord, president of the Manteca Educators Association. “And it’s like, ‘Oh, OK, that’s awesome.’ Like I said, it’s great that the state’s doing it. It’s great that the county’s allowing us to do it, and… it’s only a positive.”
While the news came as a surprise to some teachers, SJCOE said they’ve been in contact with school districts and the public health office over the past few months about the topic. Jane Steinkamp, assistant superintendent of Educational Services, said the decision was made after they talked about vaccinating their oldest educators first.
SJCOE is preparing to administer 5,000 Pfizer vaccines between Friday and next Thursday at their vaccine clinic.
“We want to just keep going until every employee in San Joaquin County that’s interested in being vaccinated gets vaccinated,” Steinkamp said. She added that the county will vaccinate more employees as supply becomes available.
Email invitations for the clinics are expected to roll out on Wednesday, but the clinic won’t be the only place teachers can get vaccinated. Public Health officials confirmed that the county is allowing pharmacies and other providers to give the vaccinations as well. Officials said that if you’re a school employee who’s able to make an appointment, nothing precludes you from booking if it’s offered to you.
“There’s nothing to preclude them from getting vaccinated in any other clinics that are offered throughout the county,” Steinkamp said.
To be clear, the scope of school employees isn’t limited to teachers. Steinkamp said the list includes everyone from custodians to secretaries and even private school employees.
SJCOE will not be requiring employees to take the vaccine. People can opt-out if they choose to do so.
For places like Manteca Unified School District (MUSD), the excitement levels for vaccinations are high.
“This time has been a long time coming,” said Clark Burke, superintendent of MUSD. “We very much want to meet the needs of our students, our staff and our community with another layer of mitigation for our essential service.”
The district partially returned to the campus as small groups back in October and later with hybrid learning in November. They implemented guidelines for cleaning and social distancing, and, according to Burke, the district has been able to keep spread at a minimum.
For teachers, vaccines are part of the way forward in fully reopening.
“We want to be back at school,” Van Noord said. “We want to be back at school safely, and I think taking the vaccine is a step in that direction for teachers to feel safer and to get us back in the classroom in a safe way.”
However, Van Noord said it'll take more than just the vaccine. Cleaning, sanitation, and reduction of community spread are big factors in the discussion. The sanitation practices have to stay and cases have to drop before teachers feel comfortable returning to the way things were before the pandemic.
“Don’t get me wrong when I say the vaccine is good. I don’t think it’s a cure-all. There still needs to be proper cleaning involved. There still needs to be some precautions taking place. For us to be fully back, we’d have to see the numbers come down dramatically,” he said.
Safety for both students and teachers is part of the reason why the district is in hybrid learning. Teachers wanted to be back in the classrooms, and the district made efforts and investments to keep people safe.
“I’m so proud of this district, the teachers, the community, the classified staff,” said Burke. “They’ve made this possible. It has been a challenge not only for families but for individual kids, dedicated educators who have answered the essential call for service…”
Beyond vaccinations, there’s still more work to do before schools reach that full reopening.
“It’s not the only step, but it’s a significant step,” Steinkamp said. “Every district has its unique challenges depending on where they are in the process of moving towards in-person instruction, but the most important thing right now is that we want to try and take getting vaccinated as barrier off the table and out of the way.”
After months of distance learning and a potential full return to the classroom on the horizon, some are carrying a sense of pride for what teachers accomplished this year and others, like Van Noord, are feeling relieved.
“If I had my preference, yeah, I’d want to get away from (distance learning). I’m pretty fed up with it too,” he said.
He said some of the big hurdles with online learning were accountability for students, checking in on students, and just making sure students are grasping the lessons. It was a smaller leap for him and his science class, but he said that he'd gladly take a real classroom over an online classroom.
While there's a lot of good news for teachers and school employees, there’s still a lot of wait-and-see for students hoping to have a prom or even a commencement ceremony.
Locally, Burke said MUSD is planning for multiple options, including small cohorts and drive-thru ceremonies. But the idea of a traditional prom or commencement has no easy answer. Steinkamp said it’s “too preliminary” for any decisions on that to be made right now.
“I’m heartbroken for all of the students’ lives were different than what they expected it to be last year and this year and potentially into the spring,” she said.
She added that a decision on herd immunity and tier movement would have to be made before large events like those could happen.
Vaccines are just another step for now, but it is still one to be celebrated as school employees volunteer to get vaccinated. As more vaccinations happen and the spread potentially goes down, Van Noord believes the “future looks good for back to school.”