This piece is part of the “Combatting COVID” series, in which we’re asking principals about COVID-19 mitigation strategies that are working well at their schools. The hope is that their experiences will help other school leaders make decisions for their communities.
As a long-time educator, Julian High School Principal Myron Hester knows the value of fun.
So when Hester started working with neighborhood organizations – like the Far Southside Community Action Council – to bring more COVID-19 vaccines to his community in Washington Heights, he knew he had to find a way to make getting the jab enjoyable. A vaccination event wasn’t enough; Hester wanted to host something that community members would want to attend.
“At the beginning of the year, we had a fall festival on the football field,” Hester explained. “There were animals, a DJ, a bouncy house, food, hot chocolate, and we had folks from the Roseland Community Hospital on-site to give free vaccinations.”
The turnout was great, and the Julian team was looking for a way to continue the momentum. They decided to take a similar approach in winter — this time hosting the festival in the gym rather than on the football field.
“I brought my families to both festivals — my kids got vaccinated,” Hester said. “My mom got her booster at the winter event.”
By pairing fun with community resources, Hester was able to help break down barriers that prevented students and families from getting vaccinated against COVID-19.
Hester’s approach to increasing access to the vaccine was rooted in experience. He and his team at Julian have long relied on partnerships with community organizations like Grads Over Guns to give students and families access to all kinds of support.
Hester sees any school event as an opportunity to connect families to services. At report card pick up, for example, community organizations — and even businesses like ComEd — set up tables and talk directly to families.
“I make it a priority to make connections,” Hester said. “Community organizations have the resources, and we can provide the facilities.”
This kind of relationship-building between the Washington Heights community and the school has paved the way for new and exciting opportunities. Currently, Principal Hester is working with Dr. Abdullah Pratt, an ER doctor at University of Chicago, to plan a vaccination event during the school day. Students will be excused from class and to head to the gym, where UChicago staff will be set up to vaccinate them, with their parents’ permission, of course.
The partnership with Dr. Pratt doesn’t end with vaccines, either. The ER doctor and some of his colleagues are working to address gun violence as a public health issue. They want to see fewer kids coming into the university’s Trauma Center, so they’ve joined forces with Julian to increase education around trauma, mental health, and healthy living and how they impact students’ relationships with one another and their community.
Hester’s hope is that this type of work continues to show Julian High students that it’s not just family or teachers who care about their wellbeing — it’s the community too.
Principal Hester’s Word of Advice
“It doesn’t hurt to ask: ‘Do you want to sponsor this event?’ Most of the time people say yes when it comes to supporting students and giving back. Sometimes, as a principal, you have to get out there and hustle.”