Partnership between Safeway, MHUSD vaccinated hundreds of educators

Photo by Marty Cheek
Lupe Barajas, a teacher at a charter school in Hollister, receives a shot from Safeway pharmaceutical technician Magdalena Temes at Sobrato High School March 10.

By Marty Cheek

Thirteen months after Morgan Hill Unified School District students were forced by COVID-19 to start distance learning, many children and teens will once again be able to step into classrooms starting April 12.

Next month’s scheduled opening of the campuses was made possible by the availability of vaccines to all local educators and school district employees. Any education staff in the district — including those at private and charter schools — could get an inoculation for free at a vaccine clinic at Sobrato High School in mid-March. More than 1,100 shots were administered during a four-day period starting March 10.

Getting in place all the public health and safety requirements that followed the most updated CDC guidelines was a crucial factor to making sure MHUSD teachers felt comfortable returning to the classroom, said Jim Levis, a science teacher at Britton Middle School and the president of the Morgan Hill Teachers Federation union.

“We were pleased the district proposed waiting until all teachers were able to get both vaccinations and the seven day wait period to build up their immunity,” he said. “We felt that with the potential exposure of teachers and students and their families, the vaccinations would be a really good first step to bringing everybody back.”

Following the April 12 opening, the students will have about seven weeks of school left before the end of the 2020-2021 term. Levis said he is excited students who want to can get back into classrooms because it will allow them and their teachers to start the process of returning to normal learning conditions.

“It’s important to realize teachers don’t like to teach online. It’s not what we do,” he said. “We got into education to work with students and have them in our classes and interact with them. Our goal was always to get back into the classroom as quickly as possible, given all of the crazy conditions and the medical concerns.”

The sudden shift to online learning starting March 16 last year required teachers to quickly shift how lessons are presented, exams are done, and student-teacher relationships. Some academic subject matter such as science courses require hands-on learning and it was difficult for most students to participate in these activities when they didn’t have the equipment for experiments at home, Levis said, stressing the importance of in-classroom learning.

Re-opening campuses to in-person learning has been a thorough process to make sure students, parents and school staff are safe, said Superintendent Steve Betando. Parents had the opportunity to answer an online survey from the district on their commitment to have their children return in person or continue distance learning. Social distancing has been reduced from six feet to three feet, thus still requiring students to stay several feet away from each other and preventing full classrooms.

Starting in early November, the school district did a six-phase “pilot program” where volunteer teachers and families navigated through the process of managing in-classroom attendance according to public health protocols such as social distancing, good hygiene, and wearing masks.

“The pilot program itself really worked to answer many questions we would have had to work out on the first day of opening schools if we hadn’t had the pilot program,” Betando said.

When students step back on campuses April 12, they will find classrooms outfitted with the technology so that teachers could teach both in the classroom and to their fellow students who stayed at home.

The opening provides parents with a “double-hinged door” option that allows them to have their children easily back home for distance learning if they feel it is better for them or if a potential spring surge in COVID-19 cases might require the return to online education, Betando said.

Flexibility was also built into the unique requirements of each individual school depending on their class schedules and grade level needs, he said.

“The way the sites develop their schedule is to create a way to make sure the maximum number of kids who select it can be accommodated by the schedule,” he said. “That may mean the students are not going to school as often in person, and they might need to be at home even if they selected in-person for a lot of the time.”

To help ease the transition for families choosing to return for in-classroom learning, Lanae Bays, MHUSD communications coordinator, has been working with a filmmaker on producing a video for parents and students to learn about back-to-school procedures in the age of COVID-19.

“There are plenty of students who have not been back to school campus since last March. We just want to show them what it looks like and ease their minds about returning,” she said. “Since they’ve last been on campus, we’ve put in all this signage reminding them to wear their masks and wash their hands and keep a safe distance from each other.”

The video will be broadcast on YouTube and social media sites when it is finished, she said.

An important part of the opening of the schools is the private-public partnership developed between Safeway’s pharmaceutical department and MHUSD staff in making sure there was a system in place to provide educators who wanted an inoculation to receive one. Originally as the school year started last fall, the target opening date was set for March 22 with the hopes that vaccines would be available by that time. The vaccines were developed but distribution from the state of California was a difficult challenge.

Former Morgan Hill City Councilmember Larry Carr, who also once served on the MHUSD board, is employed by Albertsons Supermarket, which owns Safeway. He contacted Betando about opening up a vaccination clinic through the school district where the store’s pharmacy team would inoculate teachers.

“We didn’t get very far with the county,” Carr said. “It was not easy to work with and they were really insistent on being more in control of their vaccine supply, limited as it is, and I don’t blame them for not wanting to partner with anyone for distribution.”

Once Safeway became a federal retail partner where it could obtain allocations directly from the federal government, it was easy to set up a system with MHUSD to have Safeway’s team inoculate local educators on the stage of the Sobrato High School amphitheater, Carr said. The school district team had already prepared a plan to use the site for inoculations once enough vaccines became available. Those participating received the Pfizer vaccine. The CDC guidelines have said vaccines are not required for educators to return to classrooms.

Carr understands the concerns teachers might have about in-person learning during a pandemic.

“I get the trepidation of going back into a classroom with a bunch of students and the contact with parents and the contact with other personnel at school,” he said. “As a parent, I can understand the trepidation of sending a kid back to school as well. So if we can overcome those things by administering the vaccine specifically to the people who are going to be taking care of our kids, we should be trying to do that.”

Society will not return to its pre-COVID state until schools fully open for in-person learning, hopefully in the fall if enough people receive vaccinations to provide herd immunity for the nation, Carr said.

“We’ll never get back to whatever the definition of normal will be in the future until we get our schools back open,” he said. “It should be obvious to all of us how critical our schools are to our communities. The fact we can take one school district and get everyone vaccinated in one clinic, that’s pretty impressive.”

“We would not have shots in Morgan Hill if it wasn’t for Larry’s pushing,” City Councilmember John McKay said. “And he had to go through extra gyrations, he had to have forms filled out, he had to explain why this was suitable for a clinic, and he said, “Hey, it’s for vaccinating teachers so that we can get our kids back in school, because otherwise they aren’t getting vaccinated right now.’”

Marty Cheek