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Access to vaccines for CPS students now eligible for COVID-19 vaccination severely limited in South Side communities

While children aged 5-11 can now receive COVID-19 vaccinations in more than 1,000 New York City public schools this week, and local school districts like Elgin school district U-46 move to put vaccine clinics in each of its public schools, an examination of the results from the national portal recommended to families by Chicago Public Schools finds no access to providers of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for 5-11 year olds within a mile in many Chicago communities.

CPS is encouraging parents to use to find clinics with vaccines, but searching by zip code for South Side communities such as Pullman, South Shore, Woodlawn and Morgan Park returns a “no results found” message for providers of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine, the only vaccine approved for 5-11 year-old children by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control (CDC).

By comparison, a search of the zip codes for Lincoln Park and neighboring communities shows nine different vaccine providers.

“CPS families should not have to travel miles or cross major neighborhood boundaries to get their children vaccinated,” CTU President Jesse Sharkey said. “A day of awareness is fine, but a real effort is the mayor and CPS showing an ongoing commitment, prioritizing neighborhoods with limited access and low vaccination rates for outreach and engagement, and putting a vaccination site in every school community.”

While CPS has also referred parents to clinics run by the Chicago Department of Public Health, those sites are not open to children as young as five until tomorrow, Nov. 13 — one day after the district’s citywide school closure for “Vaccine Awareness Day.” In-home vaccination for children as young as five does not begin until Nov. 15.

Fewer than 1,000 of all eligible students ages 12-17— just 34 a week — have been vaccinated at each of the district’s four regional vaccination sites (another CPS referral), as the district revealed last week that only 47 percent of all eligible students ages 12-17 have been vaccinated.

Outside of the four regional vaccination sites, there is school-based vaccination available in only 17 other CPS buildings, which is just 3 percent of all district schools. There are also few families taking advantage of vaccines offered at CPS mobile events, of which there are only three for the entire South Side.

Overall, with the largest CPS student population now eligible for vaccination, it remains difficult for families in many neighborhoods to find easy, walkable and walk-in access to vaccines.

There are dozens of elementary schools across the South Side in the 60608, 60628, 60636, 60637, 60643 and 60653 zip codes — with majority Black students — that are located in neighborhoods without easy access to vaccine clinics. Racial disparities seen in COVID hospitalizations among children ages 5-11 are nearly the same as seen in adults, according to the CDC, so there should be urgency on the part of Mayor Lori Lightfoot and CPS to provide young children, and their parents and guardians, a comprehensive plan that includes communication, transportation and education around the importance of vaccines for the district’s youngest learners.

Instead, Black CPS families with the greatest barriers to vaccine access and medical care are left to fend for themselves in setting up appointments, which only highlights existing inequities between Chicago’s communities.

“CPS has the capacity to put a much greater effort into vaccinating children than it has made thus far, and that responsibility falls squarely on the mayor,” President Sharkey said. “COVID cases are rising, our schools remain filthy and understaffed, and we cannot add to that any kind of dysfunction from the mayor and her CPS leaders around getting our youngest students vaccinated.”

“We’ve seen what that dysfunction looks like with numerous missed deadlines for COVID testing to start the year,” Sharkey added. “As we enter the colder months and everyone moves indoors, the stakes are just too high for any more failure.”

In addition to many students not having vaccine clinics within one mile of their neighborhood school, some hospitals also do not yet have the capability to offer vaccines to children ages 5-11. South Shore Hospital, for example, only has appointments for Chicago residents ages 12 and up. Advocate Trinity Hospital is only providing vaccination for its own patients between the ages of 5 and 11.

There are proven models for broad-based vaccinations, and targeted and direct outreach to families, in both Los Angeles and in New Jersey, where vaccination rates have doubled in two months. This should serve as a model for districts across the country — including CPS — to provide access to students and families most in need.

The teachers, paraprofessionals and clinicians working in CPS schools could be powerful messengers in the type of vaccination outreach that is proving effective elsewhere, but the mayor and CPS leadership have shown very little interest in partnering with educators to make such an effort.

The Union has been clear that vaccination for everyone eligible is vital to mitigating the pandemic, and has fought for regional vaccination sites for educators and staff since January, then pushed for sites to be opened up to families and communities. Hundreds have registered for a vaccination event today at the CTU Center, 1901 W. Carroll Ave., from noon to 3 p.m. The Lincoln Elementary, Sabin Elementary and National Teachers Academy school communities have also organized their own vaccination events.

The Union continues to bargain with the district around the following demands:

  • Robust weekly COVID testing of all students and staff.
  • Fast contact tracing built on best practices.
  • A district-wide vaccination program to support all school communities.
  • Additional school personnel, including nurses, substitute teachers and social workers, to address staffing shortages in a pandemic also marred by the trauma of gun violence.
  • A science-based metric to indicate when the number of positive COVID-19 cases in schools affects students’ ability to safely learn in-person.

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