In this “Combatting COVID” series, we’re asking principals about which COVID-19 mitigation strategies are working well at their schools. The hope is that their experiences will help other school leaders make decisions for their school communities.
At Solorio High School in Gage Park, nearly 99% of staff and 70% of students are vaccinated against COVID-19. The vaccination rate at Solorio has outpaced the rest of the neighborhood, which ranges from 53% to 70% vaccinated, depending on the ZIP code.
Solorio Principal Victor Iturralde is quick to clarify that he hasn’t done any special outreach to students and families around vaccines. Rather, his staff has consistently presented a “united front,” sharing their own experiences of getting the vaccine with students and their parents. At every parent meeting, Iturralde speaks about vaccinations, being careful not to overwhelm parents with information. The goal has been to help families understand that the vaccine is safe without putting a lot of pressure on them to get it.
“It is a personal decision,” said Iturralde.
Iturralde also lets teachers take the lead. One staff member designed stickers in the school’s maker lab to share with students. The stickers had a simple message: “I got vaccinated to protect the Solorio community.” Teachers also put signs on their door that read, “I got vaccinated. Ask me why!”
Some of the success, Iturralde said, can be attributed to the solidarity formed among the staff during the early days of the pandemic. COVID hit the Gage Park neighborhood hard. At Solorio, like schools across the city, Iturralde and his staff were on the front lines, providing technology and food to students and families.
“It was a horrible feeling,” Iturralde said. “Educators were in a difficult position: Being so committed to your school and your job, even in the face of the reality of endangering your own family.”
The Solorio staff often felt helpless, unable to do more than listen when students shared stories of loved ones getting sick, of parents unable to get out of bed. Staff members would often drop off food at students’ homes to make sure they had something to eat for a couple of days.
“Going through that together was a very powerful motivator for the staff to get vaccinated,” said Iturralde. “When we became eligible for the vaccine in 2021, everyone stepped up to help each other find appointments. We really pulled together.”
Since then, Solorio has honed its messaging around masking and vaccination sites. In addition to sharing information at parent meetings, the school uses its monthly newsletters and social media to point community members toward upcoming vaccination events in the neighborhood. The school keeps extra take-home tests and masks on hand (when possible) to hand out to students.
All of this work is grounded in the “why,” Iturralde explained. And for Solorio, the why is always the same: To keep the community safe.
A Word of Advice
“Be authentic. Sometimes communities – stakeholders – are just overwhelmed by all messages from the district and the city about vaccines. There’s almost too much information out there. I try to keep my messages consistent, personal, and short.”