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Los Angeles Schools Serve as Vaccination Sites While Online Education Continues to Support Learning Goals

“The critical issue for low-income communities, for communities of color, is vaccine access. By creating community vaccine sites at local schools, we’re significantly increasing access for communities of color.”

Jim Mangia, President and Chief Executive Officer at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center

A year ago, the outbreak of the global novel coronavirus pandemic forced educators and learning providers at traditional brick-and-mortar institutions to pivot to online education platforms and models.

Some schools were unsuccessful in the pivot and saw the shuttering of their doors, compelling them to sell and be used for other projects. Meanwhile, other public and private schools have remained open through online and hybrid learning models. Overall, however, school campuses remain predominantly closed as the public debates the merits and risks of students, educators, and staff returning to learning on-site.

With these large swathes of space available, some schools have offered their availability to the government for use as COVID testing and vaccination sites.

We spoke with Jim Mangia, President and Chief Executive Officer at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center to learn about the rationale behind this development, as well as the practical implications this may have for students, families, and schools as they seek to reduce their reliance on online learning models in preparation for the fall.

Meet the Expert: Jim Mangia

Majd SakrJim Mangia, President and CEO at St. John’s Well Child & Family Center

Jim Mangia is the President and CEO of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, a network of nonprofit federally qualified health centers and school-based clinics providing free medical, dental, and mental health services to over 82,000 patients in South Los Angeles. Passionate about community health, prevention, and social justice, Mangia built the Well Child and Family Centers from a small single-site clinic serving 1,200 patients a year to one of Los Angeles County’s largest nonprofit health care providers with more than a dozen clinic sites.

Mangia is a leader in building a health and human rights movement in the United States and has built myriad innovative and collaborative services and relationships. He has built strong and sustainable partnerships with school districts, government agencies, community-based organizations, schools, educators, and healthcare providers. This is to increase access to healthcare services and strengthen the healthcare safety net for impoverished and economically disadvantaged children and their families.

Covid-19’s Impact on Local Los Angeles’ Underserved Communities

Even before the outbreak of the novel coronavirus pandemic, many immigrant and low-income families said they struggled to access educational opportunities for their children. But as Covid-19 hit, low-income, immigrant, Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) communities were more severely impacted.

These communities were largely shocked by the loss of jobs, the quick shift to telework, the need to connect kids to school online, and the isolation of elders that came with nationwide shut-down and quarantine orders. Furthermore, families with low-quality internet services, inadequate devices, and fewer digital skills have suffered the greatest through this abrupt transition. For learners from low-income families, the pandemic period exacerbates educational opportunities, as access to online education is in crisis.

Quantitative and qualitative information reveals the extent of the issue. An immediate learning gap emerged at the start of the pandemic in April 2020, according to an analysis by Hernan Galperin, an associate professor of communication at USC Annenberg.

While stay-at-home mandates to minimize the spread of the coronavirus forced 1.5 million K-12 students in Los Angeles County to online classes, Galperin and his team found that one-in-four K-12 households in L.A. County lack the two critical resources to access online learning: a residential internet connection and a desktop or laptop computer. The problem is worse among Los Angeles Unified School District students, as one-in-three live in households without high-speed internet or a computer.

“The closure of school campuses is laying bare the disparities in household resources for effective distance learning,” Galperin said at the time. “Without aggressive initiatives from schools and local or state governments, low-income, and minority students will fall further behind as a result of Covid-19.”

This projection proved accurate as surveys and statistical data later in the year demonstrated the half-year impact of the pandemic on education outcomes for students.

A USC Rossier School of Education survey of low-income families in Los Angeles shows that many students became disengaged from (online) learning, especially when home technology was lacking or wasn’t reliable. And this was even after families made great sacrifices to invest in digital and learning infrastructures to support their students, even while struggling in other critical livelihood-supporting areas. The research showed that continued school support for internet access and devices—as well as live instruction and teacher feedback—was critical for improving remote learning for the remainder of the school year and into 2021.

The research was echoed by reports in the Los Angeles Times detailing the pandemic’s effect on L.A. Unified, when it released a chart based on 10-week interim assessments in November 2020. Poor grades surged in the district’s lower-income communities, which also is where student attendance rates were lower and where the Covid-19 pandemic has hit especially hard.

“The attendance figures and interim assessments don’t reflect the desire or capability of students,” remarked L.A. schools Supt. Austin Beutner during a November broadcast following the chart’s release. “They’re eager to learn and every bit as capable as they were before school facilities closed. But the struggle to cope with Covid-19 and online learning for children and their families is very real.”

Some resources proving helpful during this period include multilingual learning tools and communication lines, expanded WiFi in low-income communities, and hardship funding. Certain school districts have also shared their plans to provide low-income and immigrant students with safety nets during this time to ensure their continued learning development.

Yet, while there have been some efforts to support educational access through online means in this time, school campuses have been left largely empty.

What Repurposing Schools to Serve as Vaccination Sites Means for Health and Education

Even while there have been efforts to support online educational access to learning opportunities during the pandemic, many of the same underserved communities in Los Angeles are also those hardest hit by the pandemic but remain the lowest vaccinated by far. This is particularly true for communities of color and lower-income status in urban South and East Los Angeles, according to April 2021 data released by the Los Angeles Department of Public Health.

To counter this disparity in vaccination rates by race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic status, state officials and health leaders, including St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, have worked with education providers to repurpose currently empty school campuses to serve as vaccination sites in harder hit communities.

L.A. Unified School District (LAUSD), the second-largest school district in the nation, has operated eight vaccination sites for several weeks. However, those sites have only been accessible to educators and other school staff.

LAUSD announced plans at the beginning of April to open 25 school-based community vaccination sites, with three opening the first week of the month.

The new vaccination sites are intended to serve people living in specific zip codes in South and East Los Angeles, although residents in neighboring areas will not be turned away.

“Schools are the center of a family’s life,” explained Jim Mangia, President and CEO of St. John’s Well Child & Family Center, regarding the thought process of using public schools as vaccination sites. “Parents and neighbors are familiar with their local schools, their children attend school and activities there. It’s a critical component of creating vaccine access for underserved communities surrounding public schools.”

“The critical issue for low-income communities, for communities of color, is vaccine access. By creating community vaccine sites at local schools, we’re significantly increasing access for communities of color,” Mangia stated.

By creating access to vaccines in the community, local health and education officials believe this approach will reduce barriers to accessing the vaccine, while also building trust with communities in receiving vaccines. So while it is too early to determine how successful the collaboration between health and education leaders will be, officials hope the measures will continue closing the persistent gap in vaccine access.

Now, following the trend of California’s open-ended measures to tackle the spread of Covid-19, there is no set end date, timeline, or benchmarks for public schools serving as vaccination sites.

“We will continue operating these school vaccination sites until we reach herd immunity,” Mangia said.

While this makes sense to tackle the pandemic, public officials have also been vocal in their eagerness to get students of traditional brick-and-mortar schools back in the classroom and learning. The question may then become, how do officials intend to balance underserved communities’ access to both educational and health needs?

Despite a direct request for clarity on the situation, LAUSD’s Board of Education declined to explain how they plan to balance underserved communities’ access to both health and educational needs as schools slowly reopen over the coming months.

After a tumultuous year of heavy pivoting to accommodate critical needs and ambiguous directions from public officials, the continued lack of clarity in these operations’ impact on education is disheartening at best.

Overall though, the growing availability of vaccinations is a welcome light at the end of the pandemic tunnel, especially for students and families that have felt the greatest weight of it throughout the prolonged period.