Private schools sought early vaccines with access codes or by claiming healthcare duties

Howard Blume
·9 min read
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 25: Alverno Heights Academy is seen in Sierra Madre on Thursday, Feb. 25, 2021 in Los Angeles, CA. It is a private school that used a vaccine code meant for the poor and asked teachers to say they were health care workers to get vaccines. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)
Alverno Heights Academy in Sierra Madre was among the private schools that wanted employees to get early access to COVID-19 vaccines. (Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

At least three private schools in Los Angeles County offered their teachers and other staff a way to get COVID-19 vaccinations during a time of limited supplies — one school urging them to use restricted access codes and two others certifying that their staff were responsible for healthcare-related duties.

The actions of the three schools — Alverno Heights Academy in Sierra Madre, Westmark School in Encino and Mirman School in Brentwood — are laid out in school emails, meeting minutes and letters provided to The Times by multiple staff members at the schools.

The administrators’ actions to quickly secure staff vaccinations during a time of severely limited dosesa critical issue for all public and private campuses — show how some private schools have been willing to boldly interpret rules in their quest to bring students safely back to school and protect employees.

It also offers another example of the tough choices playing out as essential workers, people 65 and older and educators vie for vaccines available in California.

Some staff, however, expressed discomfort with the instructions, saying their journey to the front of the vaccination line moved into an ethical gray zone.

Administrators defended their assertive actions, saying they have responsibly followed strict safety protocols in operating their campuses while also helping employees pursue available opportunities to find vaccines within government guidelines.

“We believe vaccinating teachers is a critical element to ensure the well-being of our community,” Alverno Heights said in a statement. “To do so, we encouraged our employees to follow all relevant guidelines and obtain the vaccine as soon as they were able and as vaccine supplies were available.”

Meanwhile, public school districts, accountable to employee unions and elected school boards — and under greater public scrutiny — have mobilized for vaccines with state and local public health authorities with limited success. L.A. County health officials have said school employees are not generally eligible for vaccines until March 1, when supplies will initially fall far short of demand.

A glimpse into an alternative, unauthorized pathway emerged this month, when Northridge Hospital Medical Center provided vaccine appointments directly to 14 private schools and day-care centers, including Wesley School in North Hollywood, where a senior hospital executive had a child enrolled.

The Los Angeles County Public Health Department said those actions violated vaccination guidelines.

There also are numerous examples of private schools that appear to have fully adhered to county health department policies.

When it became possible in October, all three schools brought back some or all of their youngest students within weeks — using exemptions that were permitted under state and county rules. And they’ve also moved to open all elementary grades, which has been possible since Feb. 16 because of declining coronavirus infection rates.

Alverno Heights and Westmark are bringing back greater numbers of high school students.

Though the documentation suggests that the schools wanted all their employees to pursue vaccinations immediately, the schools stopped short of ordering them to do so. Administrators declined to say how many employees were vaccinated.

All staff members who spoke with The Times requested anonymity out of fear for their jobs. Alverno Heights policy does not permit staff to speak to the media without permission.

An access code meant for vulnerable communities

For Alverno, an independent Catholic school, the pandemic hit at an inopportune time, as the venerable all-girls high school was adding a program for boys and girls in kindergarten through eighth grade. Tuition at the high school — not including additional fees — is about $22,000 a year.

The push for a vaccine was expressed in emails sent from senior administrators. A Feb. 18 email set out various methods for staff members to secure vaccines:

“Option 1” was to go to myturn.ca.gov, the state’s appointment-booking website, and “check the two boxes and your age range, select ‘Education and Childcare,’ pick Los Angeles County, and enter the following Accessibility Code ...”

This particular code, which was active last week, and other codes had been provided to community organizations to distribute within communities hit especially hard by the pandemic, said Darrel Ng, senior communications advisor for the state’s COVID-19 Vaccine Task Force, in an email response to The Times.

But apparently there was a loophole.

In guidance provided to “community partners,” a state official wrote that as of Feb. 16, those eligible to use codes for appointments at a mass vaccination site at Cal State L.A. would include “education and childcare workers.” That stipulation appears to have allowed staff at Alverno and at least one other private school to set up appointments.

However, that same guidance also states: “The focus of these vaccination sites is to provide equitable access to safe, life-saving vaccines to California communities that have been heavily impacted by COVID-19.”

One Alverno employee recounted: “I called the vaccine hotline to make an appointment, and I read them the code, and said, ‘Am I eligible to use this code?’ And they said, ‘Oh, that code was given to community leaders in hard-hit areas to use.’”

The employee told The Times: “We’re trying to live out what Jesus would want us to do, and Jesus would not want us [to do this]. This is a morally wrong thing that goes against everything we stand for as a school.”

The Alverno administration declined to answer questions about the use of the access code.

Two days later, on Feb. 20, a different senior administrator emailed staff, suggesting that appointments were available provided that they claimed an association with Long Beach. That city’s health department had begun offering vaccine appointments to local schools in late January — an example of the patchwork vaccine availability that frustrated school leaders in areas where their employees were not yet eligible.

“Lots of appointments just posted for Cal State LA drive thru site,” the administrator said in the email. “I went to myturn.ca.gov and put in Long Beach as your county — you can put in all correct info, including age and education.”

A separate email also reminded staff to be sure to list an affiliation with Long Beach.

The propriety of such efforts came up at a Feb. 3 Zoom staff meeting, according to minutes of the meeting provided to The Times.

“Please try and get an appointment. If you have a QR code, they are letting people in at Dodger Stadium and not asking to see any work ID,” said Head of School Julia Fanara, according to the minutes, which paraphrased her remarks. “However, it might not be considered ethical to jump the queue to get the vaccine over a health care worker. This is a decision you have to make for yourselves.”

When presented with copies of the minutes and emails, the school did not challenge their authenticity but maintained, in a statement provided by Fanara, that its role was to provide information to staff and that vaccinations were not required.

School workers' 'healthcare duties'

Westmark School in Encino specializes in educating children in grades two through 12 who who have “clinically diagnosed language-based learning disabilities,” Head of School Claudia Koochek said.

Tuition this year was $52,446 with a new student fee of $2,000.

In a Jan. 15 communication reviewed by The Times, school leaders alerted “faculty and staff” that they had “prepared a verification letter” that would allow them to obtain a vaccination on the grounds that “you are an employee of Westmark School, and from time to time, you may take part in health office-related activities.”

These duties, according to the letter, could include supervision of the health office and taking temperature checks at the main gate. The letter also said three staff members who had presented the letter were vaccinated.

In a statement to The Times, Koochek said her employees were eligible for vaccines because the school had a “health office” and any staff member working on campus had potential direct duties related to keeping everyone safe.

The school’s approach and its “documentation was reviewed and verbally approved by vaccination site officials,” said Koochek, who declined to say who performed the review or when.

“We took advantage of the opportunity made available per the appointment system that was offered by various health organizations which offered appointments for the education/childcare sector with a health office on campus,” she said. “We selected that option as we are a school with a health office.”

The Times communicated with four staff members who said the letter did not correctly describe their role or that of most others at the school. They variously characterized the letter as inaccurate or unethical.

“While I do wish to be vaccinated as soon as it is possible under the national distribution effort, I and many other co-workers that I have talked with are morally opposed to jumping the line, especially when it would require being dishonest about our actual jobs,” a Westmark employee said.

The Los Angeles County Office of Education on Thursday said that ahead of March 1, the exemption allowing school staff to be vaccinated has been narrow.

“School health office staff (nurses, health aides) are eligible to receive the vaccine during Phase 1A as healthcare workers,” spokeswoman Margo Minecki said.

The Mirman School in Brentwood describes its niche as serving gifted K-8 students, charging annual tuition ranging from about $34,000 to $38,000 with a new student fee of $2,250.

School leaders followed a rationale similar to that of Westmark in a Jan. 20 communication with staff:

“As you all work directly with students who could potentially be infectious, are the first in line before the Health Coordinator in helping any sick students, take part in daily health screenings during carpool and at the front gate, you fall under the current county’s guidelines for vaccinations.”

The school provided a link to make appointments and a “To whom it may concern” form letter that staff members could present, signed by Head of School Dan Vorenberg:

“As staff member, (insert name) works full time for Mirman and has direct responsibility for all students while working providing necessary support to our Health Coordinator throughout the school day in support of providing health services to our student,” the letter states in part. “They are in charge of daily wellness checks, are first to respond in case of a sick child, have direct exposure to potentially infectious children, and are trained in protocols regarding Covid-19 response on campus.”

Ericka Dean, Mirman’s director of marketing and communications, said the school “felt it prudent to share this information with our staff, as it is our duty to ensure their continued safety along with protecting the well-being of our families.”

Times staff writers Laura J. Nelson and Julia Wick contributed to this report.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.