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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Low Vaccine Rates At West Side Schools Show Need For Public Health Resources, Local Leaders Say

Less than 10 percent of students at Nash Elementary in Austin are vaccinated. State Rep. La Shawn Ford said this is a sign the West Side needs more resources to make schools and communities safe.

Nash Elementary School in Austin.
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AUSTIN — West Side communities are in need of more COVID-19 testing and vaccine resources to keep families safe and keep kids in school, educators and elected officials said Tuesday.

The West Side has been hit hard by the pandemic, seeing a disproportionate number of people becoming severely ill with and dying from COVID-19. But the area has lagged behind city averages when it comes to residents getting vaccinated, though officials have said vaccines are key to preventing transmission, hospitalizations and deaths.

Getting more vaccines, testing access and information on vaccines to West Siders could protect residents, drive down the virus’ spread and ensure kids can stay in school, local leaders said.

At Nash Elementary School, 4837 W. Erie St., the low vaccination rates make it much harder to keep kids in school and protect them from infection amid the surge, said Principal Marcie Byrd. Less than 10 percent of Nash’s 223 students are vaccinated, Byrd said.

“That requires us to be more creative with how we move in the building. Maybe we do just one class at a time for lunch,” she said.

With low vaccine rates, outbreaks within the school are riskier, as unvaccinated children and adults are more likely to experience severe illness or death than vaccinated people, officials have said. That requires administrators to closely monitor cases at school and send more kids home when cases do arise, Byrd said.

Under CPS policy, unvaccinated students who are exposed to a confirmed case of COVID-19 must quarantine for 10 days. Vaccinated students who are exposed to a confirmed case do not need to quarantine.

Kids who test positive for COVID-19 regardless of their vaccination status must stay home, according to the policy.

“My concern is that if I don’t get more of my students vaccinated, we will constantly be having kids out due to coronavirus,” Byrd said.

Widespread vaccinations would “allow me to send less people home,” Byrd said.

At least 29 students are learning remotely this week due to in-class exposure, the district’s coronavirus tracker shows.

While the school has significant testing and vaccination resources for students, additional community-wide resources are necessary to keep students and their families safe from the virus, Byrd said.

Several vaccine events were hosted at Nash, and the school offers weekly testing, Byrd said. But more is needed to reach those who are most at risk, she said.

“I think in the community is where we need more of a push. I have the resources to support the school. It’s just the situations that I can’t control that’s worrisome,” Byrd said.

State Rep. La Shawn Ford and Tony LaRaviere, president of the Chicago Principals and Administrators Association, have urged the city to dedicate more testing and vaccine resources to the West Side.

All schools in neighborhoods that are the most vulnerable and have low vaccination rates should have testing and vaccines available daily for parents and families, Ford said.

“There should not be a need to wonder if there is test availability,” Ford said. “We need to make sure we have nonstop on-site testing and vaccines available for people [who are] ready to take the vaccine because you never know when a person is going to be ready.”

In the 60644 ZIP code where Nash is, just 47.3 percent of all residents are fully vaccinated, far below the 65.2 percent of all Chicagoans who are fully vaccinated. Black Chicagoans are also lagging behind the city average, with just 50.2 percent fully vaccinated, according to data from the Chicago Department of Public Health.

Among the Nash school community, many families have decided to forgo vaccination because they don’t trust they’ll be safe and lack accurate information about the vaccines, Byrd said.

With Black residents having a long history of distrust in the medical system, it is essential for the city to ramp up information campaigns in areas that are lagging, Ford said. Informing families about the vaccines at schools is a great way to reach people where they are at and make it easy for them to get the information they need, Ford said.

“We need to change our approach,” Ford said. “Respect residents and their hesitancy and get them the information they need to be comfortable. As a teacher by profession, I know everybody learns differently. Clearly, we have failed at meeting the needs of everybody.”

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