McHenry County schools work to get students vaccinated before first day

Vaccination rates in specific communities are not made available by the McHenry County Department of Health or Illinois Department of Public Health

Rosie Muteba, 13,  of Huntley, receives a dose of the Pfizer Covid Vaccine from pharmacist assistant Jacquelyn Potokar   as her brother, Sael, 14, waits for his shot Saturday morning, July 31, 2021, during a Walgreen’s Vaccination Clinic at Huntley High School.

With the first day of school approaching as COVID-19 cases climb, especially among the unvaccinated, school districts such as Harvard School District 50 are trying to create opportunities for students and community members to get vaccinated.

“Our approach is to share vaccination opportunities with all families, rather than trying to determine who is or is not vaccinated,” district Superintendent Corey Tafoya said. “Sharing vaccination opportunities puts the choice to participate to the families where it naturally belongs.”

The district worked with Family Health Partnership Clinic to host a July vaccine clinic for anyone – parents, students or community members – to get vaccinated. Anyone who received their first dose at the clinic should be fully vaccinated in time for the first day of school.

Sixty-one people attended, according to the district.

The Harvard area had the lowest vaccination rate in McHenry County as of July 18, according to an analysis of data obtained in a Freedom of Information request by the Shaw Local News Network, of which the Northwest Herald is a part. The Northwest Herald calculated vaccination rates using 2019 American Community Survey population estimates published by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Only 34% of residents in the 60033 ZIP code, which includes Harvard, were fully vaccinated through July 18. Vaccination rates get higher in the county’s population centers, with the 60142 ZIP code, Huntley, being the highest at 60%.

“We have suspected that we were lower on the vaccination rate than some of our neighboring communities,” Tafoya said. “It is concerning for the school district and part of our motivation to host our own clinic and promote any local clinics we become aware of.”

Vaccination rates by ZIP code level are not publicly available.

Local health departments have had access to the Illinois Department of Public Health census tract-level data, the narrowest form of population data, on vaccines since late May, but were not allowed to share them beyond “authorized personnel” at the local health department, according to emails obtained in the FOIA response from the IDPH.

As such, it appears they also were not allowed to share that information with school districts as they work to make decisions about safety precautions and masks for the new school year.

“The county informed me that localized vaccination percentages were not available to me,” Tafoya said. “They are only available on a county level.”

Marengo Union Elementary School District 165 Superintendent Lea Damisch said, “the health department said they could not provide that information to us because the information was unreliable and that it wouldn’t do any good to share it with you.”

The McHenry County Department of Health did not respond to multiple interview requests for this story.

Fox River Grove Elementary School District 3 is using the countywide vaccination rate data the McHenry County health department and the IDPH makes available online, Superintendent Sandy Ozimek said.

“Because the data is not specific to the Fox River Grove community, the vaccination rate data only provides a broad picture,” Ozimek said.

Trevor Robertson, 12, of Huntley, as his temperature checked Saturday morning, July 31, 2021, before receiving a dose of the Pfizer Covid Vaccine during a Walgreen’s Vaccination Clinic at Huntley High School.

For Damisch, getting information about vaccination rates wouldn’t change much for her. She said her staff’s vaccination rate far exceeds the rate of the community in Marengo, which is about 42%, and she will be watching transmission rates more closely to guide her decisions.

Superintendents have said they are following guidelines from the state and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention when making decisions about the school year.

Many McHenry County public schools have already decided to announce masks will be optional this year – before the CDC came out with guidance early last week recommending masks in schools no matter what a person’s vaccination status is.

The IDPH warned school districts last week about liability issues should they deviate from public health guidance.

“In addition to the health and safety reasons for following the CDC’s guidance, school districts that decide not to follow the CDC’s guidance should consult with their insurers regarding risk assumption and liability coverage. Insurers may be unwilling to cover liabilities created as a result of failure to adhere to public health guidance,” the IDPH said in a news release.

Marengo Community High School District 154 Superintendent David Engelbrecht said he has checked with its insurance company, which advised it to use the same language as the CDC. The high school is telling unvaccinated people they should wear a mask in school.

Ethan Robertson, 15, of Huntley, waits as pharmacist assistant Jacquelyn Potokar prepares to give Robertson a dose of the Pfizer Covid Vaccine Saturday morning, July 31, 2021, during a Walgreen’s Vaccination Clinic at Huntley High School.

Engelbrecht said McHenry County health department has been helpful to him, providing information and advice on how to best create safety policies that will be followed by students and staff. He said he worked with it to create the school’s mask guidance and it has been a good partner throughout the pandemic.

He said vaccination data would be helpful, however.

“That helps us to make a decision,” he said.

Engelbrecht is working with the McHenry County health department to get people in Marengo vaccinated. He said the district plans to host a vaccine clinic in August with the McHenry County health department. While Marengo has a lower vaccination rate than most of the county, he’s confident his high school students will choose to get vaccinated.

“From my perspective on an education impact, I hope there is some incentive to get vaccinated,” Engelbrecht said. He believes kids don’t want to miss class.

On Saturday, Huntley School District 158 held a second-dose clinic in partnership with Walgreens in an effort to get students vaccinated before the first day of school.

Parents and students interviewed by the Northwest Herald at the clinic said its location at Huntley High School was helpful.

“When Walgreens contacted our district to see if we would be interested in partnering to conduct a clinic, we felt that a clinic held at a school in our district would be a benefit to parents who are interested in a vaccine,” District 158 spokeswoman Alex LeMoine said in a statement. “Clinics are available in various locations in our community, but for many children and families, having the opportunity to come to a school where the environment is familiar can make them more comfortable.

Once Bambi Leonard learned that people the age of her daughter Elliott could get the vaccine, she started trying to find a location, so it was helpful to her that nearby Huntley High School was offering the clinic.

James Harden, 12, and his father, Michael, wait to make sure there is not a reaction to vaccine Saturday morning, July 31, 2021, after receiving dose of the Pfizer Covid Vaccine during a Walgreen’s Vaccination Clinic at Huntley High School.

Everyone in the Leonard family who could get the shot, did. But Bambi still is concerned for her 11-year-old, who isn’t old enough. At this time, only those 12 and older can get the vaccine.

“[The 11-year-old] still wears her mask all the time,” Bambi Leonard said. “It’s scary.”

Elliott Leonard, who’s going into eighth grade, wasn’t always a fan of school. But after being at home everyday for virtual learning, she’s now looking forward to being back in person.

Lisa Berens got her shot in McHenry, but with the help of Saturday’s clinic, she only had to go five minutes away to get her daughter, Ashlyn Palm, vaccinated before she starts her freshman year.

Berens said she initially thought Palm would have to wait a few years to get the jab.

“It’s a great thing for her,” Berens said. “It’s going to help, hopefully, protect her.”

Other students at the clinic were similarly enthusiastic about the prospect of a school year that was closer to normal than last year’s remote and hybrid learning, which commenced because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I’m excited to put COVID behind us,” Palm said. “In middle school, when we went back, there were still a lot of people who weren’t very good at wearing the mask, so even if there still are people like that [this year], at least we’re vaccinated, so it won’t be as much of a problem.”

Berens wants her daughter to have the full in-person experience: the first-day jitters, being in the hallway around other kids.

“I’m over the remote thing,” Berens said. “They belong back in school.”

James Harden just turned 12 three weeks ago, making him eligible for the vaccine.

“He wanted to get it done,” said his dad, Michael Harden.

“It’s good to be vaccinated for school to protect everybody, myself too,” James Harden said.

James’ mom really wanted to get him vaccinated before he went back to school, Michael Harden said, especially with the new delta variant of COVID out there.

Cases rose across the board in 5- to 11-year-olds, 12- to 17-year-olds and 18- to 22-year-olds this past month, according to the IDPH’s weekly update of school-age COVID-19 metrics.

Among 5- to 11-year-olds, 959 COVID-19 cases were reported for the week ending July 24, matching the level last seen when schools were still mostly in session, the week ending May 8. It is a 788% increase in new cases from one month earlier.

“No one knows, really, what’s coming up next, so it’s good to be vaccinated,” Michael Harden said.

Daily Chronicle reporter Katie Finlon and Shaw Media digital editor John Sahly contributed to this report.