Children enjoy the bubble show at a COVID-19 vaccine clinic held by BUSD for children ages 5 to 11 at Malcolm X Elementary on Saturday, Nov. 6. Credit: Trish McDermott

On Saturday, 218 Berkeley kids ages 5 to 11 lined up to get their first dose of the Pfizer COVID-19 vaccine at Malcolm X Elementary.

The pop-up clinic, co-organized by the school district and the city, was one of the first school-based clinics in the area to offer the vaccine to young children. The clinic was held four days after the CDC recommended the vaccine for kids 5 to 11.

The mood at the outdoor clinic was celebratory: snacks, stickers, even a bubble show. “It definitely felt more like a festival rather than a vaccination clinic,” said Valerie Kratzer, development coordinator at Berkeley Public Schools Fund, who helped arrange volunteers for the clinic. “Other than a few tears, there were no problems,” Berkeley Unified spokesperson Trish McDermott wrote in an email.

“One parent, on the way out, said this was the best vaccination experience of their life,” Kratzer said.

While the clinic itself went off without a hitch, the registration process did not go quite as planned.

In line with the Biden administration’s push for racially equitable vaccine distribution, BUSD had intended to prioritize students from marginalized groups that have faced challenges in accessing registration and clinics. At Berkeley High, 91% of white and Asian students are vaccinated, versus 54% of Black and 43% of multi-ethnic students. In California, Black people are most likely to be hesitant about getting the vaccine, according to a Public Policy Institute of California survey.

Just over 200 of the smaller, pediatric doses of the Pfizer vaccine were available at this week’s clinic. After appointments for Saturday’s clinic became available on Wednesday, staff at the district’s Office of Family Equity and Engagement began sending the registration link to families they work with in the hopes of increasing vaccine access in harder-to-reach communities. The office serves the families of students struggling academically, which includes mostly low-income students and students of color. In some cases, principals contacted OFEE families directly.

Quickly, the registration link began circulating among all BUSD elementary school parents. Families eager to get their children vaccinated signed up right away, many without knowing that first pick of the slots was not intended for the broader community.

“Our OFEE [staff] worked to prioritize families that face challenges to registration and clinic access,” McDermott, the district spokesperson, wrote in an email. “This worked to some extent on Saturday, but not entirely.”

“I could have done better in anticipating the demand for registrations and asking families in advance to hold off on registering unless they received a link directly from a BUSD staff member,” she wrote.

There are other opportunities for Berkeley parents to sign their children up for their first shot. BUSD will host a second vaccine clinic at Rosa Parks this Saturday, Nov. 13, and a third clinic at Sylvia Mendez Elementary on Nov. 20. Appointments for children are now available at Walgreens and CVS, and private health care providers like Kaiser and Sutter have opened slots as well. Parents from the Emerson PTA prepared a document with resources for where children can get vaccinated.

But the widespread sharing of the registration link for this Saturday’s clinic has rankled some parents.

Cielo Rios, the mother of a student at Emerson elementary, volunteered at Saturday’s clinic to help translate for Spanish speakers. But she said there were few Spanish-speaking families in attendance.

“I definitely became concerned that the community intended to be part of this first clinic wasn’t actually given the opportunity to schedule a vaccine,” Rios, who is the Equity Vice President for the Emerson PTA, wrote to Berkeleyside in a text message. “My concern after volunteering for my time slot became genuine worry that the equitable distribution of this first round of shots was compromised by families tempted by registrations not intended for them.”

“I don’t blame people for wanting to access. I just think that the message needed to be clear from the city and from the school district of who they were really intending to target,” said Aura Aparicio, a BUSD parent.

In an email to the community on Monday, Superintendent Brent Stephens urged community members to avoid sharing the registration link and to not sign up for an appointment unless directly contacted by the school to do so.

“We appreciate cooperation from our larger school community in not sharing the registration link with others, and only registering your students for the November 13 clinic if you are directly contacted by BUSD.  This may come in the form of a phone call, text, or email,” wrote Stephens, promising that if there are any appointments available, the district would make the link available to everyone.

For the Nov. 13 clinic, BUSD has modified its approach, sending one-on-one communications instead of reaching out to targeted families as a group. McDermott expects this to “slow the broad resharing of the link.” “A more tightly controlled early registration process will better benefit our OFEE families,” McDermott wrote. “We are confident our community will support this.”

The rush to get children vaccinated harkens back to a time when vaccines were not yet widely available. Some tried to cut the line and get their shot before the CDC recommended it for their age group amidst outreach efforts to vulnerable groups. McDermott noted that not all families “were interested in registering for the first clinic.” Meanwhile, an OFEE engagement specialist commented that she heard some more privileged families have complained about an approach that slows their children’s access to the vaccine.

This coming Saturday’s vaccination clinic will also offer a limited number of doses — about 200 — of the Pfizer vaccine.

Ally Markovich, who covers the school beat for Berkeleyside, is a former high school English teacher. Her work has appeared in The Oaklandside, The New York Times, Huffington Post and Washington Post,...