Getting our students and their family members vaccinated is key to reopening schools safely in the fall. That’s why CTU fought so hard to win a vaccine program as part of our high-school reopening agreement — and why we’re pushing for an 80 percent baseline vaccination rate for eligible students in the fall.
But, as I learned this summer, helping our families access the life-saving vaccines is no easy task. It takes more than a press release. It takes the entire school community working together to make it happen.
That’s exactly what my school, Back of The Yards High School, took on over the summer. Our entire school community, feeder schools, safe passage workers and community organizations mobilized together, before the end of the school year, to promote the vaccine event. We ended up hosting two events and vaccinated 137 people. But it was not without hiccups.
We initially attempted to reach out and coordinate the event with our 15th Ward Alderman Raymond Lopez, hoping he could secure city vaccine resources and mobile units. Despite numerous phone calls, emails and other aldermanic efforts to reach Lopez, we never received any communication or response. Fortunately, 20th Ward Alderman Jenneante Taylor, a staunch advocate for fully funded sustainable community schools, supported and attended the event even though it was outside her ward.
We secured vaccines and vaccinators through the Chicago Federation of Labor with help from CFL president Bob Reiter and his assistant Nora Cay Ryan, who coordinated with Jewel and Albertsons pharmacy teams to ensure we had access to both the Pfizer vaccine, for those 12 to 17 years old (and anyone older), and the one-shot Johnson and Johnson, for those 18 and older who preferred one shot instead of two.
Throughout the two-week lead up to the event, there were several times when it was almost cancelled. Jewel balked when it initially saw that we had fewer than 20 registrations. Our school then went into high gear and began reminding students, sharing flyers and information with seniors, canvassing the community, posting notices at the library and coffee shop across the street and spreading the word through CTU delegate networks throughout the area.
The Union provided valuable assistance by notifying schools within a two-mile radius of our building. Additionally, the community organization Increase the Peace and former Back of the Yards graduate Mayra Martinez sprung into action and activated their neighborhood communication network to lift up the event. Within days, our numbers shot up to 60 registrants and Jewel expressed gratitude and a renewed commitment to the event.
Then came the next controversy, when CPS complained about the potential liability from the action, even though the district already had held dozens of similar events, with and without CTU, in the lead up to ours. Thankfully, we were able to move forward as long as we did not advertise it as an official CPS function.
We all were on pins and needles the day of the event, worried people might not show up or students would decide that they would wait to get the vaccine later in the summer or, maybe, not at all. The day of the event, Increase the Peace critically provided seven volunteers, all bilingual young people. They helped answer questions and direct traffic as cars parked, filled out paper-work and then advanced to the vaccination station down the street on Hoyne south of 47th street. Also, nine teachers at Back of the Yards volunteered and helped greet students and families as they arrived.
By the end of the three-hour period, we had vaccinated 87 people, more than had pre-registered and more than we expected. I asked one of the juniors who came to get vaccinated, “Did you come because I announced this in advisory.” She responded, “I came because you and every single one of my other teachers were announcing it every day for the last two weeks.”
Once the event was over, a district official asked us how we got so many people vaccinated at the event. The simple answer is it takes more than mandates from central office to engage our families.
Our teachers and schools are force multipliers in our communities. Our students and their families trust us more than virtually anyone else. And our Union excels at the kind of grassroots outreach needed to help our families access vaccines as well as the other resources they need to recover from the pandemic.
Let’s use those relationships to keep our schools safe. And let’s hope CPS gets with the program and uses its immense resources to help.