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Scarlet Guy gets a COVID-19 vaccine on Nov. 5, 2021 at Lurie’s Children’s Hospital.

Manuel Martinez

Why aren’t COVID-19 shots being given out in more Chicago public schools?

When Chicago mother and doctor Cheryl Conner heard about a pharmacy willing to come to schools to give COVID-19 vaccination shots to newly eligible young children, she jumped into action.

Conner quickly set up a vaccination event at her children’s school for this Friday. Chicago Public Schools classes are canceled that day for what the school district is calling Vaccine Awareness Day. The day off was announced last week, just after the CDC approved the vaccine for children ages 5 through 11.

“If you go to where people are, they will do it,” Connor said. “Everyone’s like ‘These people don’t believe in science; it’s all vaccine hesitancy.’ No, it’s access, really.”

But her school, Sabin Elementary in West Town, will be one of the few elementary schools in the city offering shots. The city and CPS have been getting criticized for that decision, with many people asking why CPS isn’t offering vaccines at schools across the city.

Dr. Allison Arwady, the head of the Chicago Department of Public Health, wants parents to first reach out to their children’s pediatrician for the vaccine, where she said they can get their questions answered and also get other vaccinations. “That’s the best place always and then sort of go from there,” she said.

Arwady and school district officials insist, in addition to pediatrician offices, there are plenty of places to get children vaccinated and they are easily accessible.

About 200 locations will be offering vaccines to children on Friday, including mobile units at six schools, 13 school-based clinics and four public high schools. They are Clark, Roosevelt, CVCA and Richards, officials said. Other locations include hospitals, pharmacies and large clinics, with more walk-in appointments available in areas with low vaccination rates. Arwady said Chicago has received about 100,000 doses and shots have been directed to areas with high numbers of children.

Arwady said vaccine uptake tends to be better in community spaces and in doctors offices, rather than schools. She said she talked to other big cities that have been offering vaccines at schools and they did not have many takers.

She also noted that appointments are not full at the city’s four high schools serving as vaccination sites. It is far better, she said, to reach out to families that are waiting to have children vaccinated and schools with low vaccination rates, have conversations with them and then offer vaccines at their school.

But New York City this week started rolling out vaccine clinics at each of its 1,000 elementary schools and has had so much demand at some schools that parents had to wait hours, according to the New York Times. Los Angeles Unified School District is sending its mobile vaccine units to each secondary school on specific dates.

And closer to Chicago, Elgin School District 46 announced Tuesday it will offer shots at each of its 40 elementary schools.

The backdrop of the push to get children vaccinated is an uptick in COVID-19 cases in the school district, the city and the state. Last week, CPS reported 247 positive cases among children and 79 adults. That is the most cases since the third week of school. At last count, nearly 5,000 students are quarantined. The number of cases in the city is also up 21% over a week ago, to 382 cases a day.

Martinez said canceling school on Friday is evidence he really wants children to be vaccinated. He noted that thousands of unvaccinated children are having to quarantine because of exposure to COVID-19. This disrupts their education.

“We want to have a strong second semester and I want to have stability in the schools,” he said.

He urged families to get their children vaccinated Friday or this weekend. That way they will have some protection when they get together with family over the holidays. To be fully vaccinated with the Pfizer vaccine by Christmas, you need your first dose by the end of November.

But many are worried that the school district is setting itself up for the same disparities in vaccinations seen in other age groups.

Among 12- to 17-year-olds, who have been eligible for vaccination since May, some 58% are fully vaccinated. But in 17 ZIP codes, less than half of teenagers are fully vaccinated. Meanwhile, in 13 other ZIP codes, more than 80% of teens are protected against COVID-19, according to state data analyzed by WBEZ.

Sabin Elementary, where Conner is organizing the event, is located in West Town and serves mostly Latino, mostly low-income students. Other schools planning vaccination programs are Lincoln Elementary in Lincoln Park and National Teachers Academy on the near South Side.

LaSalle Elementary School, in Old Town, held a vaccine event last week, giving out 600 shots as the parents made it a festive party-like event.

Conner is a physician and found out about the pharmacy through one of her connections.

The owner of the small chain of pharmacies, Jigna Gandhi, said she is partnering with a number of area schools to hold vaccination events. But only one of them is a Chicago public school and the district was the only one that made her fill out reams of paperwork.

She said distributing the vaccines at schools is easier than at a pharmacy. The pharmacy’s hours are not always good for parents. Also, her workers can often talk to parents who are hesitant and answer questions.

Conner said Sabin is holding an information session for parents with a bilingual physician to answer questions. “It’s not really fair to other schools that don’t have a parent like me, that has a connection,” she said.

The Chicago Teachers Union also is holding a vaccination event at their headquarters on Friday.

CTU Vice President Stacy Davis Gates said she doesn’t understand why the school district is not coordinating this effort and offering shots at schools. Davis Gates notes parents trust their schools and teachers more than others. That can help with hesitancy.

“You have students in school full time and the cases in CPS are creeping back up,” she said. “So, it’s frustrating to be told no for something that is a life-saving therapy, something that is proven to work and to be told no, ‘we can’t do it’ or be given the runaround.”

Sarah Karp covers education for WBEZ. Follow her @WBEZeducation and @sskedreporter.

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