Sidney Lanier High School college advisor Kassandra Peña’s anxiety mounted while she stood in line at Wonderland of the Americas mall to receive a COVID-19 vaccination last week.

Peña’s anxiety did not stem from questioning the science behind the vaccine. It came simply from not receiving an immunization in several years and some lingering concerns about potential side effects from the vaccine, but her desire not to get COVID-19 and to return to a sense of normalcy compelled her footsteps forward.

The San Antonio Independent School District staff member joined about 2,850 other school employees last week who received their first dose of COVID-19 vaccines, thanks to partnerships between the University Health system and nine area school districts. The health care provider set aside almost 3,000 vaccine shots last week for workers in the Alamo Heights, East Central, Edgewood, Harlandale, Judson, North East, Northside, San Antonio, and Southwest school districts, said Leni Kirkman, University Health executive vice president, chief marketing communications and corporate affairs officer.

With vaccination appointments filling up within minutes of being announced, University Health decided to allocate thousands of doses last week for school employees who qualify under state guidelines – those who are at least 65 years old or have an underlying medical condition that puts them more at risk of serious illness from COVID-19, Kirkman said. The health system wanted to help people who are “important to the infrastructure of our community” and qualify under state rules get vaccinated.

“The good news is a lot of people want to take the vaccine. That was a question last year,” she said. “That’s the best problem to have that people want to take the vaccine and do their part to help end the pandemic.”

University Health vaccinates Phase 1A and 1B school district employees from nine local school districts each evening this week at Wonderland of the Americas on January 20, 2021.
Eligible school district employees line up for their COVID-19 vaccinations at Wonderland of the Americas. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

University Health hopes to add more school districts as its vaccine supply will allow, but that changes each week, Kirkman said. The health system works through the districts to prioritize which staff members receive a dose of the vaccine, and each district is given a certain number of appointments on designated days.

“We want to try to be as equitable as we can,” she said. “It’s very fluid, and we just have to be flexible as providers.”

Northside ISD Superintendent Brian Woods said at a board meeting that the district received about 1,050 slots for staff who qualify to get vaccinated. About 600 North East ISD employees had received their first COVID-19 vaccine dose as of Thursday, Superintendent Sean Maika said during a Facebook Live town hall. And almost 500 SAISD workers had been vaccinated as of Jan. 19, Superintendent Pedro Martinez said at a board meeting.

South San Antonio ISD Superintendent Mark Puig said during a Facebook Live town hall that University Health had offered the district 175 slots for staff who want to get vaccinated and qualify under state guidelines.

“This is a blessing to have the opportunity to partner with the University Health system and provide a much-needed protection for our frontline folks,” he said.

For Peña, taking the first step toward being inoculated against COVID-19 felt like a blessing. When her appointment was confirmed, she nearly cried.

“I just want this pandemic to end. I’m an extrovert, and I am very people-oriented, which is why I love my job,” she said. “That face-to-face interaction with students is the best part of my job, especially when it comes to celebrating college acceptance letters, scholarship awards, and helping students decide which college is best financially and academically. Not being able to have classrooms come in or that face-to-face interaction with students or those celebration events has really, really made this year difficult.”

This school year hasn’t been easy for SAISD fifth grade teacher Sheila Vardiman, either. Vardiman has been working from home all school year because she has a heart condition, and she is eager to return to the classroom. That’s why she went to the Wonderland mall last week to receive her first COVID-19 vaccine shot.

“I want to get back to the classroom, and at the same time I want to make sure I’m doing what I’m supposed to be doing to keep my family safe,” she said. “It’s time for us to get over this.”

Some of Vardiman’s students, who she interacts with only virtually, have asked her why she hasn’t been at school, and she has explained to them that she has to be careful because of her heart condition. She said she is grateful her principal allowed her to work from home and stay safe.

Like Peña, Vardiman worried about potential side effects from the shot, but as she sat waiting out her 10 minutes in the observation room, she said she felt fine.

“I prayed about it,” she said.

Peña did not have any side effects from her first dose, which was a big concern for her because she said she gets extremely sick when does get sick. Afterward, her husband picked her up from the mall, and she got chicken nuggets to eat because that is her comfort food.

She said she recommends that people overcome their fears and get vaccinated.

“I got the vaccine because I really want to return to normalcy, especially when it comes to my job, but also to be proof for those who were wary,” she said. “Having peace of mind coming in to work every day is a priority here. We’re much more efficient workers when we have peace of mind for our own health.”

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum

Brooke Crum is the San Antonio Report's education reporter.