Elena Njemanze, teacher, with her baby.
Kindergarten teacher Elena Njemanze, who caught COVID-19 from her daughter, wants to see more safety measures in place before she feels comfortable returning to school. But she's still optimistic about the vaccine. Credit: Amir Aziz

Starting Monday, Feb. 8, thousands of teachers and other school workers in Oakland and Alameda County will be eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine, county officials announced this week. 

About 325,000 people are in the next phase of Alameda County’s vaccine rollout plan, which in addition to educators includes food, agriculture, and emergency services workers, and people ages 65 and up. 

Teachers will be able to receive vaccines from their health care providers, and at community clinics. The Oakland Unified School District is also working with Alameda County to turn some of its school campuses into vaccination centers.

While the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that vaccinating teachers should not be a requirement of reopening schools and that other safety measures like masks and smaller class sizes can make in-person teaching safer, the possibility that teachers will soon be inoculated against the virus has reinvigorated talks about school reopening in California, where most districts remain in distance learning.

In Oakland, many teachers eagerly want to be vaccinated, while others have concerns. Many believe additional safety measures should also be implemented before schools welcome students back in person. 

The Oakland teachers’ union and the school district continue to negotiate a reopening plan, as case rates in Alameda County decline but remain high overall.

“We are hopeful that the vaccination will have a positive impact overall and we are looking to science to provide more information about the overall impacts,” said Chaz Garcia, chair of the Oakland Education Association’s bargaining team.

Mariana Herrera is a special education teacher at Esperanza Elementary School in East Oakland. Although she is eager to be vaccinated, Herrera wonders whether teachers should be as high on the vaccine priority list as they are, since their work can be done virtually. 

“The ethical and moral question of who goes first is so hard,” she said. “I think bus drivers, grocery workers, incarcerated folks, and homeless—they should be considered in the first groups.”

Once the next tier of essential workers is vaccinated, distribution will shift to a strictly age-based system. This is a recent change from the previous list, which would have prioritized incarcerated and homeless people before moving to younger individuals with pre-existing health conditions. 

Another one of Herrera’s concerns is whether families will be kept safe after teachers are vaccinated. Some teachers and students live with older family members or others who are immunocompromised, Herrera said, and research has not yet shown with certainty that people who are vaccinated won’t be able to transmit the virus. 

Early research showed that children were more likely to be asymptomatic but less likely to transmit the coronavirus to adults. However, more recent studies have shown that youth can be infected, show symptoms, and pass it on to others. The CDC has maintained that risk is lowest when community spread is lowest. 

The zip code where Esperanza Elementary is located in East Oakland, 94603, has the highest case rate in all of Alameda County. Since the start of the pandemic 11 months ago, the zip code has seen 11,961 cases per 100,000 people. The area has also notched the highest test positivity rate at 14%. In comparison, Alameda County has 4,545 cases per 100,000 people, with 5% of tests coming back positive. Experts and residents believe East Oakland’s higher COVID-19 rates are due to factors like crowded housing and the higher percentage of essential service workers who live in the area.

“We knew it was going to hit our families more than people in other areas,” Herrera said. “This thing is extremely contagious.” 

While virtual learning isn’t perfect, Herrera says the format has gotten much better than it was last April after schools closed. She started out teaching students over WhatsApp, a messaging platform, because so many of her families did not have internet or computers at home. Herrera misses her students, but she said she’d feel more comfortable resuming in-person classes in the fall, once more people in the community have had a chance to be vaccinated. 

Some teachers are more reluctant

But not everyone is as keen on getting vaccinated as soon as possible. Coron Brinson, the dean of students at Cristo Rey de la Salle East Bay High School, a private Catholic school in Fruitvale, said he is hesitant because of how quickly the vaccines were developed. Both the Moderna and Pfizer vaccines underwent clinical trials and have been declared safe by the Food and Drug Administration, which regulates medical treatments in the U.S.

And as a Black man, he’s aware of the healthcare industry’s history of racism and mistreatment of Black communities. Brinson, who previously taught eighth grade at Aspire Bay Area schools, feels pressured to go forward with a medical treatment that he’s unsure about. 

“If I don’t get vaccinated, will I have a job?” he said. “I just fear that if it is mandated that a teacher has to have a vaccine or else they lose their job, what does that look like in the middle of a pandemic?”

His school is currently 100% virtual, and Brinson also wants to see more conclusive research on the safety of reopening high schools for in-person instruction. Many of the reopening guidelines from the state and county prioritize in-person instruction for lower grades. 

As a member of his school’s COVID-19 task force, Brinson has been part of conversations about what it would take to offer in-person instruction, especially with the vaccine becoming available to teachers. He wondered whether educators who agree to teach in person could be eligible for hazard pay, similarly to grocery workers. But he emphasized that forcing the vaccine on teachers, or forcing them to teach in-person, won’t lead to positive outcomes for anyone.

“It’ll make relationships worse, and there could be rifts between parents and teachers,” he said, pointing to the lawsuit that the city of San Francisco filed against its own school district to force SFUSD to develop a reopening plan, and the tensions between the Chicago Teachers Union and Chicago city leadership, where teachers have threatened to strike, and city officials have threatened to lock teachers out of distance learning.

Transmission between adults and children can happen

Elena Njemanze, a kindergarten teacher at Piedmont Avenue Elementary, knows that youth can spread the virus because she caught it from her 6-month-old, she said. 

After giving birth in July, Njemanze was on maternity leave throughout the first half of the 2020-2021 school year, and returned to teaching last month. She initially opted for a nanny, but that didn’t work out and she ended up enrolling her daughter in a daycare in the second week of January. A few days after her daughter started at the daycare, one of the workers received a positive COVID test, and by Martin Luther King, Jr. Day Njemanze’s daughter was running a fever. The mom and daughter got tested that week; results confirmed they both had contracted coronavirus. 

Because she had fairly mild symptoms, Njemanze decided to continue teaching virtually for another week.

“I taught with my 6-month-old in my lap, nursing off camera on Zoom while teaching my kindergarten class,” she said. “By Friday of last week, it was getting just too hard to hold up my arms.”

The opportunity to get vaccinated does put Njemanze at more ease, but she wants to know that other steps are being taken to make school campuses safer. She pointed out that at many schools there are few bathrooms for adult use only, which would make it hard to remain physically distant from each other when teachers take bathroom breaks. Her classroom at Piedmont Avenue does have operable windows, but if it’s cold or rainy outside, keeping them open could make students uncomfortable. 

Njemanze wants to see teachers be completely vaccinated, with both doses, before resuming in-person instruction. Once individuals have received the first dose, they can get a second a few weeks later, and a couple weeks after that, the individual has built up immunity, according to the CDC. So if schools hold off until teachers are inoculated, that could push reopening into March or later. OUSD employs about 4,700 teachers, principals, administrators, and other school staff.

“I definitely feel for the families who are saying, ‘I did not sign up to be the teacher for my second grader or my fifth grader or my 12th grader. I recognize that for a lot of families it has not been an easy transition,” she said. “This year of remote learning, while it might not have as much growth as we would like, I think this tradeoff of not spreading COVID to our more vulnerable families and teachers is priceless.” 

Ashley McBride writes about education equity for The Oaklandside. Her work covers Oakland’s public district and charter schools. Before joining The Oaklandside in 2020, Ashley was a reporter for the San Antonio Express-News and the San Francisco Chronicle as a Hearst Journalism Fellow, and has held positions at the Poynter Institute and the Palm Beach Post. Ashley earned her master’s degree in journalism from Syracuse University.