Why high schools serve as ideal vaccination sites

About two-thirds of Phoenix Union High School District educators have been vaccinated with students about to return
By: | March 11, 2021
Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Chad Gestson gets vaccinated at one his district's buildings.Phoenix Union High School District Superintendent Chad Gestson gets vaccinated at one his district's buildings in March.

High schools present ideal locations for mass COVID vaccinations—big parking lots, good Wi-Fi and staff experienced in planning big events like football games and assemblies.

That’s why four campuses in Arizona’s Phoenix Union High School District have been serving as vaccination sites for not only its own staff, but for educators from around the city.

So far, about 10,000 staff members from Phoenix public, charter and private schools, says Superintendent Chad Gestson, whose is preparing to bring students back to classrooms on March 30 for the first time since shutting down last spring.

The state of Arizona moved educators up into the 1B vaccination group with essential workers such as police officers and firefighters. The district is working with Maricopa County and two supermarket pharmacies to distribute the vaccines.

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“As a school district and as a superintendent, we have been strongly encouraging our employees to get the vaccine,” Gestson says. “I made sure that I, as well as my team, including our principals, very publicly got our vaccinations early in the process.”

Gestson believes about two-thirds of the district’s educators have been vaccinated. He has also seen staff who were initially hesitant to get the vaccine sign up for a shot after hearing from colleagues that the process was easy and safe. 

The sites are staffed by a team of volunteers, school nurses and pharmacy personnel.

The district, a member of Chiefs for Change, will next host mass vaccinations drives for essential workers including municipal bus drivers and U.S. Postal Service employees. “And as soon as vaccines are opened up to general public, we fully intend to be community vaccination points of distribution for our entire footprint,” Gestson says.

Grief, grace, gratitude and greatness

Beginning on March 15, Gestson and his team plan to reopen their schools for the first time since closing in March 2020. Teachers and a limited number of students will return March 15, with the rest of the students invited back on March 30.

After a year a remaining in the red zone, community spread is finally declining in the 32 zip codes the districts servers, Gestson says.

“Our messaging has been very clear to our community that when the data showed it was safe to do so, we would bring students back as soon as possible,” he says. “We’re confident our schools are going to be very safe, welcoming and inviting places.”

After returning on March 15, staff will receive extensive training on COVID safety protocols. Gestson says he is urging all staff to keep four things in mind as his district moves on from the pandemic: grief, grace, gratitude and greatness.

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That means recognizing the grief that staff and students have experienced during the pandemic, and having the grace to support people who are anxious and fearful about returning to school.

Gestson also hopes that staff and students will feel a sense of gratitude that they are able to return to school safely, he says.

“Finally, our kids need us to come back and be great and reconnect very well with them,” Gestson says. “Coming out of isolation after many months, kids need us and expect us to be great.”