'We all just do what we need to do': South Siskiyou school administrators talk vaccine mandate
School teachers and staff – including custodians, aides and bus drivers – will be required to show proof of full vaccinations or take weekly COVID-19 tests, Gov. Gavin Newsom announced last week.
The new public health order for K-12 educators comes as schools prepare to receive students again after summer break, amid growing concerns of the highly contagious delta variant.
Siskiyou County is experiencing a surge of COVID-19 cases over the past few weeks. As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 155 active cases in the county and a total of 40 deaths since the start of the pandemic, the public health department reported.
About 550 Siskiyou County children ages 12 to 18 are fully vaccinated, according to Siskiyou County's COVID-19 vaccination dashboard, or 3.2% of the nearly 17,000 people who have opted to get the COVID-19 vaccine.
“We think this is the right thing to do and we think this is a sustainable way to keeping our schools open and to address the number one anxiety that parents like myself have for young children," Newsom said.
Schools don’t have to be fully compliant until Oct. 15, but officials are already analyzing the order and considering on-site testing access.
What school administrators are saying about the mandate
Ray Kellar, superintendent/principal at Dunsmuir High School, said his staff is already mostly vaccinated.
"It seems that we just do what we need to do for the benefit of our school and community," he said.
Barry Barnhart, superintendent of the Mount Shasta Union School District, said when vaccines were first offered, MSUSD had one of the highest vaccination rates of any district in the county. Teachers got up early and traveled to the Siskiyou Golden Fairgrounds to be among the first to get their vaccine at the mass clinics offered by the county health department.
But in reality, teachers still have an option to not vaccinate if they don’t want to. They will just have to test more frequently, Barnhart pointed out. Teachers at Mount Shasta Elementary and Sisson will be able to get tested on site with rapid antigen testing.
"All of this is still new, and we're feeling our way through it," he added.
Weed Elementary School superintendent/principal Jon Ray said most of his staff was fully vaccinated by March 12, 2020, as part of the school's commitment to stay open for face-to-face learning throughout the pandemic.
"We formed a close relationship with Mount Valleys Health Centers, specifically the Weed clinic," Ray said, which offered vaccines for staff members during the school day.
"We have a few staff members who chose not to be vaccinated," Ray said. "Some changed their minds and got the vaccine over the summer, so I'm not sure what our current numbers are." But those who choose not to get the poke will receive antigen tests with instant results, much the same as last school year.
"None of this is that new to us," Ray said.
Susan Keeler, superintendent/principal at Dunsmuir Elementary School, said she does have some staff members who aren't vaccinated as yet and the district will also offer on site testing weekly. Students can also be tested if there is a need, she said.
"We will have some staff that will be testing," said Mike Matheson, superintendent of the Siskiyou Union High School District, which includes Weed, Mount Shasta, McCloud and Happy Camp high schools. He said the district was part of the state's Antigen Rapid Testing program for schools last year and will continue with this process for staff and students that may need it.
"We are going to do everything possible to keep our students, staff and families safe, attending school, and participating in the extracurricular activities that they desire to be a part of," Matheson said.
Small schools – like McCloud Elementary – feel the COVID-19 pinch
It's a different story in McCloud, where less than half of the staff at McCloud Elementary School is vaccinated, said principal/superintendent Shelley Cain. She worries about access for testing – especially since the McCloud Health Clinic has struggled with staffing – as well as what will happen if any of her teachers do get exposed to COVID-19 and need to quarantine.
"Teachers have a very limited substitute teacher pool to choose from because so many of those on the sub list were also in the high risk category and either removed themselves from the pool or retired," Cain added. "We have been told that staff has until October to get vaccinated and the school has until then to put testing protocols in place ... Most schools will struggle with who is in charge of this testing as most staff are already maxed out on hours and duties at school."
Cain continued, "It feels like we have been in limbo here for a year and a half, and while we are grateful that we were open all of last year, and poised to be open again, we are no closer to ending this pandemic than we were in March of 2020 when we first sent students home and closed our doors. We are anxious, tired and deeply saddened by it all, but we must move forward."
Nearly 90% of California educators have already been vaccinated, E. Toby Boyd, California Teachers Association president said.
As of last Wednesday, Newsom had left the decision of whether to require vaccines up to local districts. He had issued a mask mandate for indoor classes that applies to teachers and students.
Nada Atieh, a Report for America corps member and education reporter focusing on childhood trauma and the achievement gap for the Redding Record Searchlight, contributed to this story.
Skye Kinkade is the editor of the Mt. Shasta Area Newspapers and the Siskiyou Daily News. She is a fourth generation, lifelong Siskiyou County resident.