Here's how north Siskiyou schools are dealing with the COVID-19 vaccine mandate

Bill Choy
Mount Shasta Herald
Students sit with plenty of social distance between them at Grenada Elementary, which began the 2020/21 school year in person and will transition to distance learning.

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 earlier this month.

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 Wednesday morning, there were 177 active cases in the county and a total of 40 deaths since the start of the pandemic, the public health department reported. 

More:'We all just do what we need to do': South Siskiyou school administrators talk vaccine mandate

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. 

New Scott Valley Unified School District superintendent Micheline Miglis, left, has been welcomed to the Scott Valley by SVUSD board president Tammi Bennett.

What school administrators are saying about the mandate 

It's Yreka Union High School District's approach "not to ask" if employees have been vaccinated, said superintendent Mark Greenfield.

“We’re proceeding with weekly testing, same as last year,” he said. “If a staff member wants to avoid testing, they can contact HR for possible exemption.” 

Grenada Elementary School superintendent/principal GingerLee Charles said about 70% of the staff at her school have been vaccinated, which “is significantly higher” than the local vaccination rate of 43% of the eligible population.  

“While I wish the rate were higher, we are doing well in comparison,” she said.

Charles said the district hasn't yet decided how it will handle the logistics of providing weekly testing for those who choose not to be vaccinated, but it will likely coordinate with the California Department of Public Health for onsite testing, like it did last year.

“This strategy limited the impact on students due to time away from the school and supporting our kids,” she said. “We lack the economy of scale that larger districts have. We hope that the CDPH takes into account our rural area and the impact of this and other mandates on our small, rural school community.” 

More:Here's what to know about vaccination rates at Siskiyou County's only nursing home

Charles recalled that one staff member said to her, "I'll get it for the kids. I'll do whatever it takes to help keep us all safe and stay open for the kids." 

Micheline Miglis, superintendent for the Scott Valley Unified School District said she doesn't have a current count of who has and hasn't been vaccinated since the schools are still on summer break. Teachers return Thursday.

“We will work with our faculty and staff and consult with our labor partners. We are working on the logistics," said Miglis.

"We will have some staff that will be testing," said Mike Matheson, superintendent of the Siskiyou Union High School District, which includes Happy Camp, Weed, Mount Shasta and McCloud 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. 

More:Siskiyou County COVID-19 vaccine tracker: 37% of people fully vaccinated

Jami Thomas is the superintendent/principal at four small schools in Siskiyou County, including Delphic (with 65 students), Gazelle (40 students), Klamath River (5 students) and Seiad (10 students). She said she doesn't wish to share specific information regarding staff vaccination rates at each school “because they are so small it could lead to assumptions about specific staff members.”  

“This is a very challenging issue for our community,” Thomas said. “Administrators are working around the clock to try to comply with the new state mandates by October 15 ... Several testing options are currently being explored, including OptiServe, which I believe is state funded.” 

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.