With some Bay Area school districts requiring students to get COVID-19 shots to return to class, Black students are being vaccinated at rates far below their peers, exacerbating long-standing racial disparities laid bare by the pandemic and raising fears that Black students could be disproportionately shut out of public school.
The vaccine gap is significant, according to an analysis of county health department data by this news organization: In five core Bay Area counties, 52 percent of Black students between the ages of 12 and 17 have received at least one shot compared with 85 percent of all students.
The reasons for the disparity are complex, rooted in decades of systemic discrimination and mistrust of the medical establishment. But the potential impact on Black students — who experts say already experienced disproportionate learning losses during California’s long school shutdowns — is clear.
“It would destabilize courses, it would destabilize future aspirations, it would destabilize learning,” said David Byrd, a Black music teacher in Oakland whose son is a freshman at Oakland High. “It’s going to ruin people’s education.”
As schools grapple with how to keep students safe even as the virus continues to circulate, critics of the local vaccine mandates worry they were approved too quickly and without adequate steps to address racial disparities. But proponents counter that vaccinations are the safest and quickest way to keep the largest number of students in classrooms — and to convince unvaccinated families to get the shots.
An analysis of vaccination numbers by age and race from county health departments and current population estimates from the state found that in Alameda, Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Francisco and San Mateo counties, Asian and White students have been vaccinated at much higher rates, with 95% and 74% of 12- to 17-year-olds respectively having received at least one shot. Among the region’s Latinos, 68 percent of young people have received a vaccination.
The rate among Black and multiracial students, by comparison, is lower than all other racial groups. In the counties with the largest Black populations, the disparities are particularly stark: Of Alameda County’s Black residents ages 12 to 17, about 44% have received the vaccine, compared to about 84% of the county’s overall age group. In Contra Costa, nearly 90% of 12- to 17-year-olds are vaccinated, but just 60% of Black students have gotten at least one shot.
Even in San Francisco, which has the region’s highest vaccination rate for that group overall, just 62% of Black teens are vaccinated, compared to about 87% of White kids and more than 95% of Asian kids.
School districts that have imposed their own mandates are scrambling to reach unvaccinated students before deadlines kick in later this fall or early next year. So far, Oakland Unified, West Contra Costa Unified and Piedmont Unified have imposed requirements that will force unvaccinated students to disenroll or attend online courses. Hayward Unified and Berkeley Unified also have mandates but will allow unvaccinated students to take weekly coronavirus tests.
With California’s first-in-the-nation school vaccination mandate likely to take effect over the summer and FDA approval last week of vaccines for children aged 5 to 11, more school districts will face similar challenges in getting unvaccinated families to change their minds.
‘Black people don’t want to be pushed aside’
Educators and public health experts — as well as Black parents and teens wrestling with whether to get the shots — say no one should be surprised that there’s uncertainty about the COVID vaccines in a community that has experienced generations of racism in a nation that allowed hundreds of Black men to go untreated for syphilis for decades in the infamous Tuskegee Study.
Victoria McGraw, a 16-year-old junior at Oakland Tech who is Black and of Hispanic descent, said that she initially didn’t want the vaccine after seeing that the J&J shot caused rare blood clots. Though she eventually got vaccinated at the insistence of her mother, a medical assistant, she said she and her grandparents discussed Tuskegee, particularly their fears that COVID vaccinations could prove to be another experiment on Black people.
“We don’t want a repeat of that years later,” McGraw said. “And if the government starts killing off Black people, getting justice for them will be really hard — they’ll get little to none.”
But since getting the vaccine, McGraw said her opinion has shifted.
“I don’t wanna come to school and give someone else COVID — it’s not fair to them,” she said. “If a lot of people don’t get their vaccines — people who play sports and stuff — it’s going to be very hard. We can’t risk losing half a squad or a team because somebody’s out sick, and it’s just gonna put people at risk.”
In San Pablo, 16-year-old Zebrea Wallace and her mother Zelon Harrison have spent weeks debating whether Wallace should get vaccinated or return to online school, where she said she risks losing focus.
“I’m scared about my grades. It was really, really so hard for me to stay in contact with my teachers and even get on Zoom,” said Wallace, a Richmond High School senior. “I like being with my teachers. I like being at school, I really do.”
Wallace’s family has experienced the worst of COVID-19. In July, she lost her father to the virus just a few months before her older brother became so sick he was placed in the intensive-care unit.
Three of Harrison’s eight children are now vaccinated, but she and Wallace are still on the fence.
“It’s super, super scary, because of what this country has done to Black people, to say, ‘Because science says so,’” Harrison said. “But Black people don’t want to be pushed aside because we didn’t get it.”
The lagging vaccination rates for Black teens mirror those for Black Californians at large. Statewide, roughly 60% of Black residents over 12 have had at least one dose, compared with about 81% of the overall eligible population.
The data is more varied in the Bay Area, which has some of the state’s highest vaccination rates. San Francisco, San Mateo and Santa Clara counties report rates for Black residents that are similar to or higher than other ethnic groups, but in Alameda and Contra Costa counties, Black residents have been vaccinated at lower rates.
“There are legitimate reasons, understandable reasons, for African Americans to be concerned about interactions with the health system — and to be a little reluctant, and want to take more time,” said Dr. Kimi Watkins-Tartt, director of the Alameda County Public Health Department. “This has meant that we have had to work extra hard to try to overcome the distrust, and it’s hard to overcome distrust in the middle of an emergency.”
With just weeks left before their mandates kick in, educators admit that the efforts to get more kids vaccinated could have happened faster and more aggressively.
“It’s not simply a matter of, ‘Hey here’s the information, here’s the vaccine, go get it,’” said Young Whan Choi, an Oakland administrator who was an early proponent of vaccine requirements. “I was operating from the assumption that we could get 90% of students vaccinated if we had these clinics on campus and had accurate information.”
Getting kids vaccinated often means convincing entire families, said Dr. Adrian James, chief medical officer with West Oakland Health. As a Black doctor at the community clinic, he tries to hear out patients’ concerns, quell rumors and speak in personal terms about the value of the vaccine.
When people are unsure of the vaccine, social interactions and word-of-mouth — a conversation with a friend or a video passed around in church — can more easily sway them than traditional public health messaging, James said.
“If my best friend isn’t going to get it for whatever reason, then I’m not going to get it either,” James said. “The people who are not getting it aren’t saying, ‘The scientific evidence says I shouldn’t get it.’ They’re not communicating about it in that way.”
Still, James believes that vaccine mandates work — and that families’ desire to return to “normal life,” including in-person schooling, will help increase the number of vaccinated Black teens.
The push for in-person school
The vaccine requirements risk exacerbating learning losses experienced by children of color during the pandemic. In California — which was one of the slowest states to reopen schools — analyses from EdSource showed that by April 2021, fewer than half of students were attending in-person school, and Black, Latino and Asian students remained less likely to receive in-person instruction when hybrid or in-person models returned.
Disenfranchising thousands of students by keeping them home this winter could reinforce stubborn racial inequities in public school education, said Dr. Tyrone Howard, an education professor and director of the Black Male Institute at UCLA.
“It signifies to me elimination, it signifies to me exclusion, in ways that run counter to what advocates and folks like myself have been pushing for a long time,” Howard said. “We want Black students to have the same opportunities other students have — extracurricular experiences, access to teachers during lunch and the day. You want them to have the full experience of schooling.”
Those concerns were central to the debate in Oakland Unified, a 52,000-student district that is about 21% Black. The school board approved its vaccine mandate last month amid fierce opposition from three members, who argued that the strict requirements — which offer no option for weekly testing — were implemented without enough planning, and would effectively mean that half of students of color would not be able to attend school.
“We’re putting a barrier in place when we should explicitly try to lower barriers to bring our students back,” said board member Mike Hutchinson, who voted against the mandate, and pushed for either waiting for the state mandate or including a testing option. “It feels like we’re blaming the victims again.”
In the end, the argument that schools have a responsibility to protect the health of students — and that they are better served by consistent in-person schooling — won out.
“At a certain point from a public health standpoint, there are just decisions that need to be made to protect the overall health of the larger community,” Choi said.
With less than two months to go, Oakland and West Contra Costa are trying new approaches as interest wanes in the vaccine clinics they’ve hosted since the start of the year. They are exploring disseminating information through Black churches, hosting sessions for families with doctors of color, and incorporating vaccine education into lesson plans.
West Contra Costa Unified Superintendent Dr. Kenneth Hurst, whose district is 18% Black, said he understands where parents are coming from — his own brother and other family members remain unvaccinated. It’s clear, he said, that the district needs to provide more support.
“I know that with our culture here with Black people, we need to educate more, we need to listen more, we need to do it all, to be honest with you,” Hurst said. “Really, listen to people.”
For some Black students, the mandates are already working. In mid-October, Sierra Carson, 17, arrived at an Oakland vaccination clinic with her best friend. As her mom listened on speakerphone, she asked the clinic manager questions about getting the Pfizer vaccine and the possible side effects.
She and her friend, both seniors at Ralph J. Bunche Academy in West Oakland, had one last conversation: Were they sure they wanted to do it?
They decided yes.
“I gotta walk the stage,” Carson said, thinking ahead to her graduation. “For me to do that, I need the vaccine.”
Staff writer Harriet Blair Rowan contributed to this report.
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