Moving the needle

SUHSD plans for teacher vaccinations


Lucia Rivera

A BVH student arrives for in-person choir rehearsal on Feb. 24. As of Feb. 24, only some cohorts have been allowed on campus.

Lucia Rivera, Editor-in-Chief

In preparation for educator eligibility for the COVID-19 vaccine, the Sweetwater Union High School District (SUHSD) administration and the Sweetwater Education Association (SEA) are currently collaborating with community organizations to plan for effective vaccinations for teachers. 

“Once the county gives the formal notification that educators are eligible for vaccinations we have agreed with our teachers that we will need to meet within two days of that notification so that we can start establishing those timelines. That in essence acknowledges some of the ambiguity we’re dealing with right now,” SUHSD Interim Superintendent Moises Aguirre said. “In the meantime we’re putting all the other things in place so that we can have that understanding of what would happen once vaccines become available.”

According to the San Diego County website, “Those at risk of exposure at work in the following sectors: Emergency Services; Childcare & Education; and Food & Agriculture” will be in the next group eligible for vaccination. Not only do educators have to be eligible, but the county has to have sufficient doses for vaccinating teachers. 

The work being done in the meantime involves communication between district administration, the SEA, community representatives and other groups involved with vaccine distribution.

“As a district, we don’t receive our own doses that then we can impart,” Aguirre said. “[Our role is] more of constant communication with our partner agencies at County Health and Human Services. We’ve been in contact with different universities […] and with different community clinics like San Ysidro Community Health Clinic. It’s more of trying to align resources.”

The SEA communicates similarly with stakeholders in the plan to vaccinate teachers, with a focus on advocating on behalf of union members. As of Feb. 19, only healthcare workers, other Phase 1A individuals and people over the age of 64 are eligible to receive the vaccine in San Diego County.

Information about the plan to vaccinate teachers sourced from the San Diego County website and Sweetwater Union High School District Interim Superintendent Moises Aguirre. No set date is available as of Feb. 19 for when teachers will be eligible for vaccination in the county. (Lucia Rivera )

“Our job mainly has been to advocate with our legislators, county supervisors [and] assembly person about ‘when are we going to be at the top of the list?’” SEA President Julie Walker said. 

As of now, the district has stated that prior to teachers’ return to in-person teaching, vaccinations will be offered but not mandated. This information was also relayed to SUHSD teachers by Walker on Feb. 3, who wrote in an email that “it is within [the district’s] right as our employer to mandate we return to school when we reach the Red Tier.” 

While the SEA Bargaining Team is working on the vaccination timeline’s language in order “to allow members to be fully vaccinated before returning,” the SEA did not decide to press a vaccination mandate. This was due to only 60 percent support of a COVID-19 vaccination mandate in the SEA’s survey of teachers. 

From an administrative perspective, SUHSD also felt more comfortable encouraging and offering vaccines for educators without mandating it. 

“There’s some ambiguous rules out there [about] whether employers can mandate vaccinations for employees. So rather than go down that route, which is pretty contentious, what we agreed to do—because we deemed it to be more efficient and effective to do this in collaboration with our teachers union—is to have it be a voluntary process. Then once they become available [we will] really start to advocate on our part to make sure that there’s a prioritization of vaccinations for educators,” Aguirre said.

Although San Diego County does not yet have vaccines for SUHSD educators, 90 percent of teachers have reported wanting to be vaccinated in an SEA survey. Once able, however, district leadership highly recommend vaccinations to staff members. 

“We’re definitely strongly encouraging anybody who’s eligible. Obviously there’s going to be exceptions when people might have an allergic reaction or some other ethics-based reason, but to the degree that’s possible we’re definitely encouraging all of our employees and anybody who’s eligible in the community to receive the vaccine, especially because down here in the South Bay we’ve been so heavily impacted by COVID,” Aguirre said.

Because ultimately, if we keep the teachers safe, we’re gonna keep the kids safe, and that’s where our advocacy is, at safety.”

— SEA President Julie Walker

BVH Economics teacher Elizabeth Palmer is one SUHSD educator who was eager to get vaccinated and now has been, independently from her educator role. Her stance aligns with Aguirre’s recommendations to get vaccinated. 

“Everyone reacts differently to receiving vaccines of any kind, but in my opinion the benefits of the vaccine (not contracting COVID) exceed the costs (a few days of discomfort after each inoculation),” Palmer said.

While Palmer will now be vaccinated in the case that she does return to in-person instruction, she stated she “would have considered returning to teaching in-person without the vaccine with the proper protocols put in place for [her] and [her] students’ safety.” 

Both Walker and Palmer recognized that they could pass COVID-19 to family members they live with, something that Walker considered as another reason for further safety protocols once educators resume teaching in person. 

“A big concern for me has always been that I care for my elderly mother. I wouldn’t have wanted to risk exposing her to the coronavirus. That is why I’m grateful I was able to take the COVID vaccine because now I’m protected against the disease,” Palmer said. “It gives me peace of mind that I won’t infect my family members, especially my mother (she, also, has been vaccinated).”

In contrast, 10 percent of SUHSD teachers reported not currently wanting to receive the vaccine, according to Walker. In the survey conducted by the SEA, this minority of teachers gave three primary reasons for their stance.

“I have some members who for medical reasons, can’t take the vaccine. So we’ll figure out a job where they don’t need to go in until herd immunity and everything else. I have pregnant members who right now don’t want to get vaccinated because there’s been no studies; I get it, we’re gonna figure something out for them. I have some members who don’t trust the mRNA vaccine. I’m hoping that the Johnson and Johnson one, which is more traditional, […] maybe that’s the one those that are a little bit more hesitant will be able to feel comfortable [with],” Walker said.

BVH Government and World History teacher and most senior teacher within SUHSD Frank Schneemann is one of the educators who wants to receive the Johnson and Johnson vaccine, which is administered in a single shot, instead of the currently approved Moderna and Pfizer vaccines. Although he is already eligible to receive the vaccine due to his age of 86 years, he would currently prefer to return to the classroom without vaccination. 

Input from teachers like Schneemann and Palmer inform the SEA for the bargaining process they conduct with district administration. This bargaining is applied to decisions regarding reentry to the classroom, safety protocols that will be put in place and teacher vaccination, among other subjects. As Interim Superintendent, Aguirre also expressed his gratitude to teachers’ efforts and input during the pandemic. 

“I’m encouraged that even when [administration and the SEA] have a little bit of a disagreement, we’re able to take a break, come back and reset, refocus and come to an agreement that works for both sides, and works for everybody, including the kids.

In order to maximize their advocacy for SUHSD staff, the SEA formed a reopening work group of staff members that provide input to the district. Additionally, there is a site representative council with one representative for every 15 SUHSD teachers. At the core of Walker’s work, however, is emphasizing safety for everyone amid “a lot of competing voices.”

Schneemann stated he does not personally feel like his voice is heard by SUHSD, but emphasized his understanding of the procedures that administration has to follow as they plan for teacher vaccinations. 

“I know [the district is] kind of in the middle between the teachers and the state and I support the administration and what they have to do, because they don’t have an easy job,”  Schneemann said. “They have to do a balancing act between all this silly stuff that comes out from the state and the teachers also.” 

More than anything, Schneemann hoped to return to the classroom and provide students with the same quality of education they were receiving prior to the pandemic. 

“I guess it doesn’t matter to me whether I have a voice. I’m a soldier. Whatever my administrators want me to do, I do, and more,” Schneemann said, explaining that he will follow any safety protocols SUHSD puts in place for reopening. 

Overall, vaccines are only one element of the precautions SUHSD will take in order to maintain the highest level of staff, student and community safety during reopening. 

“That’s ultimately the goal: to get ourselves and our students back in. We’re pretty smart, creative people, we’ve got great ideas, and we need to be heard by every level of government,” Walker said. “We need to have a say, to make sure that our teachers are as safe as we can make them. And that they’re safe with their students so that we don’t contribute to community spread when it’s done correctly [and] deliberately.”