As COVID-19 numbers creep downward in San Joaquin County and vaccination efforts continue, the pressure is on for schools to reopen.

Lodi Unified School District Superintendent Cathy Nichols-Washer gave an update on where things stand at Tuesday’s Board of Trustees meeting, during which she said almost 2,000 Lodi Unified employees have received their first of the two vaccination shots.

She called attention to Dr. Maggie Park, San Joaquin County’s Public Health Officer, and Jane Steinkamp, San Joaquin County Office of Education assistant superintendent, to give them credit in the vaccination efforts.

“(Park) has been diligent in her effort to secure vaccinations for all educators in the county. This was not an easy task, and I thank her and her staff for doing that,” Nichols-Washer said. “I also want to thank the county Office of Education, in particular Jane Steinkamp, assistant superintendent, for chairing their

efforts. It was an amazing implementation of a very large effort under a very short timeline to put together.”

In a March 3 press release, the SJCOE said it has administered approximately 13,000 doses of the vaccine at seven clinics over the past two weeks.

“This is a game-changer. We want all students and teachers back in the classroom, and this is a path toward that goal,” San Joaquin County Superintendent of Schools James Mousalimas said in the release. “Vaccinating school employees doesn’t just help protect students, teachers, custodians, office workers, and all other educational staff. It also protects the loved ones and families of our students and staff and benefits the wider community.”

The Pfizer vaccine, available through authorization of Public Health, were administered by school nurses, health aides, and other health care professionals brought in. The SJCOE release said at that at its peak, 400 vaccinations were being given per hour.

But as good news builds about the county’s recovery from the pandemic, parents of Lodi Unified students are frustrated at how slow the district has been to begin the reopening process.

The district and the Lodi Educators Association, the union that represents the district’s teachers, reached a memorandum of understanding in November 2020 that said the district would begin reopening schools when the county hit the red tier in California’s Blueprint for a Safer Economy tier system.

Nichols-Washer said on Tuesday that the county, which is in the most restrictive purple tier, has hit qualifying numbers for the red tier in two of the three required metrics, with a positivity rate of 5% and a health equity number of 6.9%. The adjusted case rate for the county was 11.6% at the time of the county’s weekly update on Tuesday. That number needs to be below 8%, and all three have to be there for two weeks, before the county can be moved to the red tier.

Reopening in the red tier isn’t good enough for some parents who spoke during the public comment in Tuesday’s meeting, and for those who held a rally in front of the Lodi Unified offices the same afternoon.

“You have asked us to be patient, and you have asked us to be kind, and we have done that. Now we are asking you to look at the science and reopen,” said Brenda De La Torre, a parent of two children in the district. “I do not believe that is too much of a task to ask. My children have amazing teachers who have gone above and beyond this year to try to teach them in any way they can over Zoom, but it is a great struggle, not only for teachers, but for my children who are struggling socially, mentally and physically.”

Tom Moccia, who organized the rally, pointed to districts around the area that are returning to in-person instruction, saying Linden is back, Lincoln has announced it will reopen, and Livermore has announced a return for all students in kindergarten through 12th grade.

“We have been asked to follow the science for nearly a year. We have been asked to wear masks, social distance, and close businesses and schools,” Moccia said. “We have taken Dr. Fauci’s word as gospel for almost 365 days, but now we decide that Dr. Fauci’s word is not good enough. Dr. Fauci says schools are safe to reopen with proper precautions. The CDC says schools are safe to open with proper precautions.”

Trustee Ron Heberle agreed, saying before the public comment segment of the meeting that returning to in-person classes has been one of his soapboxes.

“We have got to get our kids back to school,” Heberle said. “I just hope people know we will be trying as best we can within the law to get it going. As far as I can see, when the time is right, we are ready, so let’s do it.”

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