Hopes that Mesa Public Schools can keep classrooms open got a shot in the arm last week – literally.
Through what Superintendent Dr. Andi Fourlis called “relentless conversations,” the district scored 4,000 doses of the Moderna COVID-19 vaccine for employees and hundreds began Jan. 20 rolling up their sleeves for the shots with the help of the Mesa Fire & Medical Department and school nurses.
Moreover, Fourlis and the Arizona School Administrators Association is working with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health to use Mesa High and Skyline High as distribution centers for the vaccine for all educations in parochial, charter and private schools in Mesa.
The rollout of vaccinations for all interested MPS teachers and staff began on Wednesday at Westwood High School, continued the next day at Mountain View and was to continue Friday through next Wednesday at the four other MPS high schools.
“We know that we have a community where two-thirds of our families want their kids to be in in-person learning and we know that that takes a really strong set of mitigation strategies and the pinnacle of those strategies is the vaccine,” Fourlis told the Tribune.
Fourlis said that her initial conversation with state Department of Health Services Director Dr. Cara Christ focused on teachers.
The district had surveyed teachers about their willingness to get vaccinated and found that a majority of them wanted the shots.
But Fourlis wasn’t satisfied with stopping there.
“We wanted to make sure that the vaccines were going to be available for all school personnel and so we started with a campaign trying to influence the county and the state around the importance of making sure that all of our staff – from our custodians to our food and nutrition staff to our bus drivers – all needed to be in that educator category,” she said, adding that even substitute teachers are eligible to get them," she said.
In Arizona’s phased rollout of the vaccine that began with frontline health workers, teachers were in the second category for the shots and became eligible for shots earlier this month.
Mesa’s aggressive vaccination program began the day after students could return to classrooms at most district schools after they spent two weeks of virtual learning as MPS sought to avert a virus surge from holiday gatherings.
It also began during a week when the three metrics for measuring virus spread were basically unchanged, according to data the county released last Thursday. All three benchmarks for MPS showed substantial spread but unlike the last five or six weeks, there was little to no upward movement in the numbers.
The district’s own dashboard of reported COVID-19 cases among its campuses also remained unchanged, showing that out of 67,000 students and staff, there were 257 active cases – 152 students and 105 adults.
But it was where those cases were located that impacted the decisions on how students would learn, possibly for the rest of the month. Four elementary schools, two junior highs and one high school remained in virtual-only mode while four other high schools restricted students to two days of on-campus instruction and three days in learning at home. Only Skyline High was fully open.
Fourlis said that on Wednesday at Westwood, about 500 MPS and City of Mesa employees were vaccinated; some doses were allocated for city workers. Fourlis herself had received her shot at Chandler Gilbert Community College, which is a designated point of distribution for all people who fit one of the current vaccine eligibility categories set by state and federal officials.
To facilitate the MPS vaccine program, the district used a more efficient online platform for scheduling appointments.
The negotiations between the district and state also focused on getting a distribution point within Mesa Public School boundaries to make it even more convenient for school employees to sign up for a shot.
“The majority of our staff were waiting for it to come closer to Mesa,” Fourlis said of the employee survey results. “So, I reached out to Dr. Christ and her team.”
Fourlis praised Christ for her responsiveness to the district, the state’s largest public school system
She also praised Mesa Fire & Medical, which also is a district partner in administering flu and other shots to children, as well as city police, who had to provide an escort for the dose from the state’s central storage facility to the district.
“This is a beautiful collaboration among these three organizations and it truly exemplifies the importance of public health coming together so the kids can be in school,” she said.
Fourlis said employees were “most appreciative” of the efforts taken by the district to make it as easy as possible to get a shot.
But the most appreciative might well be the many Mesa students and parents who for months vented their frustration and anger over closed campuses at MPS Governing Board meetings.
“This is our primary goal – to get our classrooms opened and keep them open and the vaccine is one of the best mitigation strategies to make that happen,” Fourlis said. “Our parents know that. They are saying ‘Oh my goodness, maybe there’s light at the end of this crazy tunnel.”