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Many school districts in California and the country have transitioned to fully reopening schools for the fall semester primarily due to COVID-19 vaccination efforts. School openings have brought a sense of new normalcy to their communities. 

One such school district is the Elk Grove Unified School District in southern Sacramento County. Since this past summer, they encouraged students, staff, and faculty to get vaccinated as they prepared to reopen in August. They improved sanitation and air quality in their schools and developed new safeguards and protocols such as face masks for students and staff and strict contact tracing measures. Elk Grove's district is the fifth largest in California, serving 64,000 students. 

Dr. Crystal Martinez-Alire is the first Native American elected to the Elk Grove Unified School District Board of Education. Previously serving as Tribal Chair of Ione Band of Miwok Indians, Dr. Martinez-Alire is an established researcher and education expert publishing extensively on educational, social justice and transformational leadership . 

"One of the hurdles we faced was vaccine hesitancy from families. To overcome this, we partnered with the Sacramento County Public Health, Rite Aid, and Kaiser Permanente to develop a student COVID-19 vaccine campaign to encourage students to get vaccinated,” Dr. Martinez-Alire said. “We launched a social media campaign for youth, bringing greater awareness to our vaccine clinics and sending regular vaccine clinic reminders to homes in our school district community every Friday during the summer."

While the vaccine campaign was largely successful, the district continues to encourage unvaccinated students, their families, and faculty and staff to vaccinate and, where applicable, to receive booster shots.

"Some of our Native families might still be reluctant to get the vaccine. I ask them to think about our ancestors and grandparents and all those before us and what they had to endure. I remind reluctant parents to think of their elders and immunocompromised community members. Becoming vaccinated protects them as well as ourselves. I lost an aunt to COVID-19. She was very active in the Native community. I think of her story and many of the other elders we've lost in our community," said Dr. Martinez-Alire.

The Elk Grove Unified School District and other California schools reopened this fall while recognizing the impact of the pandemic on children and youth and their ability to learn in a safe environment. Students thrive with peer-to-peer connections through clubs, athletics and the arts and engage one-on-one with their teachers, coaches, and support staff. Schools have enacted protocols and are making decisions based on public health and safety and transition to newer models based on realities they face during the pandemic.

"As parents and community leaders, we need to recognize that our children have gone through different experiences with isolation and loss in these past 18 months of the pandemic. We need to be continually mindful when working with our students who have returned to school. They are undergoing a transition in their interactions with peers and teachers. The Elk Grove Unified School District has so far ensured a safe return to in-person learning and engagement for students. It may not look like what it did before COVID-19, but returning to school has helped bring communities back together," said Dr. Martinez-Alire.

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