On a Thursday afternoon in mid-January, Woodland Elementary School’s cafeteria is transformed into a vaccine center. The room is sectioned off into check-in points with nursing staff and a waiting area for newly-vaccinated staff members.
Bill Peterson, 78, is greeted by a nurse as he walks in. He holds onto his health information packet as he walks up to the cafeteria stage, behind the curtain. Nurses are stationed there with vaccines. Peterson sits down, joking with them before he rolls up his sleeve.
“Which arm do you prefer?” the nurse asks.
“Right, I guess,” Peterson answers.
He’s about to become the first school staff member to be vaccinated for COVID-19, not just in Mariposa County, but the entire San Joaquin Valley. Peterson says everyone should get the vaccine when they can.
“‘Cause I think it’s the thing to do. You know, there’s people dying of COVID, but there’s nobody dying from the shot,” he says.
He’s been with the district for 34 years. He works part-time as a custodial foreman with the Mariposa County Unified School District.
“I’m old. So, I’m 78. I didn’t even hesitate to take it. They signed me up and it was great,” he says.
Woodland Elementary School Principal Sarah Matlock says it was symbolic for the custodial staff to get the vaccines first.
“They’ve been really on the front lines getting ready when we opened, getting our classrooms and cafeteria sanitized every day and really doing a lot of extra duties,” she says.
The county has already vaccinated its healthcare workers which clears the way for educators. Lizz Darcy with the Mariposa County Health & Human Services Agency says preparing for the vaccines took several months of planning. The agency credits its experience with past wildfire emergency responses in rolling out the vaccinations. She also says the smaller size of the county helped.
“Mariposa County, we have the one school district. We also have a charter school and some home schools. So it’s a little bit easier than some of the other counties. We can reach out to a single source or a couple of sources and get our whole educator population,” she says.
While the agency prepares vaccines inside the cafeteria, the school’s outdoor field is filled with students during recess. Classes have been in session five days a week since mid-October.
Principal Matlock says more than 300 students are on the campus daily, with about 40 full-time and part-time staff members. Mariposa is in the red tier which means the schools have been able to remain fully open with strict safety protocols.
“So we’ve had those in place all year and we’ve been able to keep our students and staff safe as a result, so masks, sanitizing classrooms much more than we did in the past. Cohorting all our students,” Matlock says.
Cohorting means sectioning off kids into classroom groups that interact only with each other. Matlock says this protocol makes it easier to contact trace, should a student become infected. And now educators have another option to protect themselves with the vaccine.
Matlock’s daughter, Samantha works as a teacher’s aid at the school and is about to get her shot. She works primarily with 4th and 5th grade classes. She says she looks forward to the vaccine helping things feel more normal, after seeing first-hand how the safety protocols have changed the classroom learning experience.
“You know, if you’re working on certain projects, you can’t use a lot of hands-on activities. Like say you’re using cubes for math or something like that, and you have to make sure that they’re sanitized. It’s just a lot of extra steps to make sure we’re following those protocols and it’s difficult,” she says.
Doug and Kathy Chappell are both retired teachers still involved in the district. They arrive ready to get their vaccines.
“Super excited! I can’t even tell you how excited I am,” exclaims Kathy Chappell.
She serves on the Mariposa County Unified School Board, while Doug works as a substitute. He says he was impressed by how quickly students adapted to the new safety measures.
“Once we got a mask that they felt comfortable with, I never had any problems,” he says.
Chappell noticed the difference when he subbed at the start of the school year, when only distance-learning was an option.
“I have them on Zoom and you can see the kids in the background. You know, the dog’s jumping on them. They’re playing around with this, or their little brother or sister would come in the room and they’d be distracted,” he says.
Kathy says one of the hardest things for students to deal with in distance-learning is the isolation.
“We’re a rural area, a lot of children don’t have a lot of social, other social opportunities. At least being in their cohort, yes, it was somewhat limited but it was still social,” she says.
Although parents have the option of keeping their children at home for distance-learning, Kathy says most students are in classrooms. Currently, 15% of students in the district are not participating in classroom learning. She and other teachers hope that the vaccine will make it possible for every student to be back in school.