West Garfield Park’s George W. Tilton Elementary School, 223 N. Keeler Ave., is trying to make a dent in its low student vaccination rates with a Jan. 31 free vaccination event. 

Amid the Omicron variant surge, the majority-Black public schools in the city continue to experience disproportionately low vaccination rates. As of Jan. 18, most West Side schools had rates below 25%, with some schools’ rates in single digits – including Tilton, which had only 8% of its students vaccinated, according to a Jan. 24 investigation by WBEZ.

On Nov. 10, the Chicago Public Schools district started working with the Illinois Department of Public Health to hold pop-up clinics in schools throughout the district. 

The Tilton vaccination clinic is one of the seven pop-up vaccination clinics held on Jan. 31 and the only one held on the West Side that day. 

LaVita Buckner, Tilton’s curriculum and instructional coach, who is helping to organize the vaccination drive, said that the high rate of COVID-19 infections previously caused three classrooms to go remote, and the disease continues to cause a large number of absences. She said that they hope the drive would at the very least slow the spread down, so that they can move closer to normal. 

The vaccination clinic will run from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. While the event is primarily aimed at students, parents can also use it to get booster shots. While the organizers are encouraging registering ahead of time, the event will allow walk-ins.

Lagging vaccination rates along schools with majority-minority populations have long since been concerned. A Chalkbeat Chicago investigation published on Jan. 7, found that the majority-Black high schools had an average vaccination rate of 28%. 

The WBEZ investigation found that in public schools located in Austin, West Garfield Park and East Garfield Park, an average of one in every 10 students is fully vaccinated against COVID-19. And race isn’t necessarily a predictor. 

In the better-resourced North Side communities, the vaccination rates are higher, even when the student body is “majority-minority.” 

For example, Rogers Park’s Sullivan High School, whose student body is 34.9% Black, 41.7% Hispanic, 8.1% Asian and 9.9% white, has 63% of its students vaccinated, while East Garfield Park’s Marshall High School, those student body is 94.8% Black and 3.3% Hispanic, has 15% of its students vaccinated. 

In an earlier interview, Illinois State Rep. La Shawn Ford (8th) argued that vaccine hesitancy was a natural consequence of long-term disinvestment in Black communities. 

“The reason why there are significant health disparities between whites and Blacks in Illinois is because of the lack of access to high-quality healthcare in Black communities,” he said. 

“We still have that same problem — the lack of high-quality care. You can’t just expect for people to just turn the switch on because healthcare providers say you should take a shot. A lot of people have a hard time with [getting access to] a high-quality provider all the time for their care.” 

Still, Ford felt that vaccination events in school would help, since they are convenient for parents. 

Tilton High School, whose attendance boundaries include most of the northern half of West Garfield Park, has a student body that’s 91.5% Black, 7.7% Hispanic and 0.8% white. Buckner said that 93% of Tilton faculty are fully vaccinated. 

Buckner said that, from what she heard, the major source of hesitation is that the parents “say they don’t know what’s in the shots.” 

Tilton has been trying hard to get the word out about the vaccination event.

“We are sending e-blasts, emails, we’re sending out the robocalls,” Buckner said. “We dropped letters off at Off the Street Club, which a lot of our students go to, as well as Chicago Park District facilities.” 

Since only Pfizer vaccines are currently approved for people under the age of 18, that’s the only vaccine that’s being offered to students at the Tilton event. Parents can get boosters from all Pfizer, Moderna and Johnson & Johnson vaccines. Buckner said that they timed it so that the event starts after the parents drop off and sign in their kids.

“We want to get the students and the families to kind of slow or stop the spread,” she added. “We just want to get the message out.” 

To find out more about CPS vaccination efforts, visit https://www.cps.edu/services-and-supports/covid-19-resources/covid-19-vaccination/ 

To register for Tilton event and other CPS/IDPH vaccination events, visit https://events.juvare.com/IL-IDPH/726589ad-1495-4ad0-94aa-386f7ca54087/.

Igor Studenkov

Igor Studenkov is a winner of multiple Illinois Press Association awards for local government and business reporting. He has been contributing to Austin Weekly News since 2015. His work has also appeared...