After two pandemic school years, nurse Markuail Griggs says the biggest barrier to getting her students vaccinated against COVID-19 is medical mistrust — especially among Black and brown families.
Griggs is the lead nurse at the LEARN Charter School Network, which has seven campuses in Chicago as well as campuses in Waukegan and Washington, D.C. Overall, just 23% of students are vaccinated.
“We hosted town halls, we had small group events to educate parents and students about vaccine awareness,” Griggs said. “But the next step now is to dig deeper and talk to parents one-on-one.”
As students leave class behind for the summer, officials will have fewer opportunities to connect with families and address their concerns. Student vaccination rates in Chicago Public Schools have grown over the school year, but movement has been slow. Just over half of all 272,000 students in the traditional public schools — 54% of students — are fully vaccinated. And the rates are even lower at non-district schools that are publicly funded but privately operated — charters, alternative and contract schools. At these schools, only 46% of 58,000 students have gotten two shots.
The divide is especially pronounced for younger students. For 5- to 11-year-olds, just 31% of students at non-district schools are vaccinated, compared to 44% for traditional schools. For 12- to 17-year-olds, 54% of students in non-district charter and alternative school students are vaccinated compared to 64% of district students. CPS receives COVID-19 vaccination data for all students, including those attending charter and alternative schools, from the city’s public health department.
District and non-district schools serve similar student populations — both educate high numbers of low-income students and students of color. These groups, particularly African Americans, tend to have lower vaccination rates. But there is a small group of traditional CPS schools with exceptionally high vaccination rates, 80% or 90%, that help lift the CPS average, according to CPS data. There is no similar group among the charters and alternative schools, though a handful of schools vaccinate 70% or more of their students.
The vaccine challenge
CPS’ non-traditional schools feature a mix of elementary schools and high schools, including a sizable group of schools known as “options” or alternative schools. These are high schools designed to re-enroll or re-engage students who have fallen off track at a traditional high school. These small schools serve about 6,300 students across 32 campuses, some of whom don’t have strong ties to institutions and struggle with multiple issues. There are only four options schools within the traditional school system.
At one of the options schools, Youth Connection Charter School, just 10 to 30% of students across 20 campuses are fully vaccinated. Officials said the teens are “reluctant” because they typically don’t have relationships with medical providers.
Experts said transportation is another barrier for families on the South and West sides of the city. Many schools hosted on-site vaccine clinics this year to reach as many people as possible. At LEARN, nearly 65% of vaccinated students got their shots on campus.
“A lot of hard work went into this,” Griggs said. “Many of our parents don’t have consistent health care providers and so we wanted to provide a safe and consistent place where our entire school community could get vaccinated.”
More than two dozen charter schools managed to raise their vaccination rates higher than the 54% CPS average by the end of the 2021-22 school year. Several campuses of the Noble Schools and Acero Schools networks are standouts, with rates as high as 74%.
Acero canceled classes on Nov. 12 to observe Vaccination Awareness Day so families could get shots at free, community-based clinics. Officials said they will continue to share local vaccination opportunities through the city’s COVID-19 Vaccine Finder tool.
The school district said it’s working to improve vaccination rates by partnering with community organizations, hosting town halls and through social media campaigns.
Dunne STEM Academy, a traditional public school, created a public service announcement via the TikTok app to help raise awareness about the rising COVID-related hospitalization of children and teenagers. According to CPS, the campaign helped Dunne’s vaccination rate climb from 5% to 42%.
Officials said the next step is to address vaccine booster hesitancy. About 47% of fully vaccinated Americans have received a booster dose so far, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Nereida Moreno covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @nereidamorenos and @WBEZeducation.