Community schools in multiple states will be the focus of renewed efforts to vaccinate more children and staff even as COVID rates are as low as they have been since the pandemic began.
The Vaccine Confidence Challenge is awarding $5,000 grants each week to community school campaigns that combat vaccine hesitancy in underresourced cities and neighborhoods. These schools are ideally suited for the effort as they already serve as hubs for medical care, nutrition, and other services, says JosÁ© MuÁ±oz, director of the Institute for Educational Leadership’s Coalition for Community Schools, which is partnering on the challenge with the National Association of School Nurses and health-care giant Kaiser Permanente.
Administrators can use ESSER COVID relief money to fund these vaccination and education campaigns. “Right now, administrators have billions of dollars in their hands,” MuÁ±oz says. “If they’re looking for the highest-leverage opportunities that last the longest, they should invest in the community schools.”
Schools in California, Colorado, Georgia, Hawaii, Maryland, Oregon, Northern Virginia, Washington, and Washington, D.C., are eligible to register for the challenge, which runs through the end of May. “We see this project as a critical opportunity to improve the health and well-being of our school communities,” says Donna Mazyck, executive director of the National Association of School Nurses. “The pandemic exposed serious health inequities and this coalition is well-positioned to support community members and ensure access to safe and effective vaccination.”
Some of the early signs of success include schools that are translating vaccination-related materials into multiple languages. Educators and others are also chipping away at vaccine hesitancy by having one-on-one and small group conversations with reluctant families, some of whom have said they are still waiting to see how the vaccines impact the health of people who have received them, MuÁ±oz says.
“Community schools, through their partnerships with unions and administrators’ associations, can be influences for broader public health,” MuÁ±oz says. “The last 24 months have caused a tremendous amount of mental health issues for young people, and kids are still going to need vaccinations in multiple ways and kids are still going to get sick.”
Community schools are also being encouraged to use federal COVID relief to unlock additional funds from local governments, health care providers, private organizations, and philanthropic foundations. “Private funding helps catalyze great ideas,” MuÁ±oz says. “Everything is innovative right now because we’ve never been through this.”
The Vaccine Challenge should also help further the mission of community schools to coordinate services for marginalized neighborhoods that lack adequate health care and other essentials. One example of a big win during COVID was how many schools distributed free meals during lockdowns. “It’s a great time to mobilize,” MuÁ±oz says. “Let’s make sure we don’t waste this moment and that we build out the relationships and systems that care for kids.”