Photo: Twin Rivers Unified Communications Department
A middle school student is vaccinated at a pop-up Covid-19 vaccine clinic in Twin Rivers Unified.

Fifteen-year-old Felipe Caceres isn’t fond of shots and needles. But when his school district in Davis opened a vaccine clinic for students his age, he quickly hopped in line.

“We don’t know everything, and there’s always a possibility you could get sick, but the goal is to be safe,” said Caceres, who is the last in his household to get a vaccine. “I’m a little nervous, I’m not that good with shots. But this is for the greater good.”

On May 10, the Food and Drug Administration expanded the emergency authorization of the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccine for adolescents ages 12 and up. Following the announcement, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the California Department of Public Health gave their approvals for using the vaccine in individuals 12 and older.

Now, with a return to full in-person instruction on the horizon, schools across California are opening vaccination clinics to students and the broader community, with hopes of boosting vaccine rates among families hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We’re encouraging everyone who wishes to have their child or themselves get vaccinated to do so, and now there is ample supply,” said John Bowes, superintendent of Davis Joint Unified School District, which hosted a vaccine clinic on Tuesday in partnership with Yolo County Public Health Department. “Along with masking, cleaning, safety protocols and regular testing, vaccinations are an important part of reducing the spread of Covid.”

Standing with Caceres in line at Frances Harper Junior High School was his mother, Maru Fernandez, who shared relief to have her youngest family member vaccinated.

“We have been waiting for this. We have some family members who are high risk, so it was important for us to get vaccinated,” said Fernandez, adding that the clinic was much faster and closer to home for her than where she received her own shot. “It means we have some peace of mind, and we want to be part of getting to herd immunity.”

Photo: Sydney Johnson

Felipe Caceres (right) and Maru Fernandez (left) stand in line at a pop-up vaccine clinic at Frances Harper Junior High School.

About 70% of students enrolled at Davis Joint Unified are back on campus five days a week, and 30% are continuing with distance learning. Regardless of their child’s learning schedule, however, many families were eager to get a vaccine at the district’s free clinic, which had over 800 individuals registered. Due to high demand, the district opened a drive-through vaccination site on Sunday that brought in more than 1,000 people, including 500 students, and was open to the public.

About 17% of youth between the ages of 0 and 17 are fully vaccinated in California as of May 17, according to data from the California Department of Public Health.

Across the country, about 1.5 million cases of Covid-19 were reported in 11-to-17-year-olds over the last year. Children often have more mild cases when they contract the virus, but they can spread illness to those they encounter.

Jennifer Fong, a mother of four who attended the Davis clinic on Tuesday, said she feels much better about sending her kids back to fully in-person instruction if they are vaccinated.

“I’m so excited she can get the vaccine,” Fong said about her 13-year-old daughter. “I want to make sure my kids are safe, especially with school going back in person this fall.”

The Pfizer vaccine is administered in two doses given about three weeks apart for both adolescents and adults. Studies on randomized trials showed that the vaccine is highly effective in providing antibodies against the virus that causes Covid, and the only patients who contracted Covid during a trial period were those with placebo, leading researchers to determine it is 100% effective.

Local health officials are also counting on schools to expand vaccine access in some of the state’s hardest-hit regions, such as Fresno County.

“Fighting for our kids is something that unites all of us in Fresno County, and this announcement from FDA allows us to protect teens as well as their most vulnerable and at-risk relatives and contacts here in Central California,” says Dr. Rais Vohra, Fresno County Interim Health Officer. “Having the vaccine available for younger populations is critical to reducing the health impact and burden of the virus and getting our entire community back to operating at a normal level.”

For parents still hesitant about the vaccine, which is voluntary, school staff have stepped in as trusted information sources. But many low-income residents who want a vaccine still face barriers to getting one, such as long lines, confusing appointment websites or lack of transportation to get to vaccination centers.

School districts opening their own clinics are now trying to bring the vaccines to their communities ahead of summer break and encouraging families to get a shot before June 15, when California will lift Covid-19 safety precautions such as mask mandates.

Green Dot Public Schools, a charter school network with 19 middle and high schools in Southern California, is partnering with the St. John’s Wellness Center health clinic to set up six schools as Covid-19 vaccination centers for the local communities throughout the month of May. Each site is able to schedule about 300-400 appointments and follow-up appointments are booked as well.

“Some of the big vaccination sites are really far out, so getting there is difficult if you don’t have a car. We actually had staff members driving our custodians and community members to go get vaccinated,” said Annabelle Eliashiv, Green Dot California chief of staff. “A lot of our families walk to schools, so this is right in the middle of their communities and we have hundreds of vaccines for walk-ins. We’re calling our families and promoting this on all of our channels.”

In the Bay Area, West Contra Costa Unified and its neighboring districts are hosting school-based vaccination clinics at more than a dozen campuses across Contra Costa County for community members 12 and older beginning in late May to July.

Twin Rivers Unified, a large suburban district east of Sacramento, had about 140 students 12 to 17 years old come to its first school-based clinic on May 14 at Foothill High School. Nearly 100 community members older than 18 also were vaccinated on the clinic’s first day.

Schools are confronting a massive task in the Covid-19 vaccination campaign, but they have historically played a key role in vaccinating vulnerable populations during health crises. In 1954, more than 1 million kids received the first Polio vaccine as part of a nationwide test that ultimately helped end one of the deadliest diseases of the 20th century.

“This isn’t a simple undertaking, but it’s been done before,” said Los Angeles Unified Superintendent Austin Beutner. “An entire generation of children received polio vaccinations at schools.”

In Los Angeles Unified, California’s largest district with almost 650,000 students, 19 school-based vaccination clinics are already operating in neighborhoods that have been most impacted by the virus for students ages 16 to 18. Beginning Monday, the district plans to offer vaccines to students 12 and up at middle and high school campuses. Mobile vaccination teams will visit each middle and high school campus at least once before school ends and again during the summer, according to the superintendent.

“No other organization has such a deep relationship with that many children. Schools are trusted partners with the families they serve and are in almost daily contact with their students. This engagement is a critical piece of any vaccination effort,” Beutner said Monday. “There’s no better place to provide vaccinations to schoolchildren than at their local, neighborhood school.”

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