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Family health navigators have been reaching out to students' families to help provide access to COVID-19 vaccines.

COURTESY PHOTO: HILLSBORO SCHOOL DISTRICT - Hillsboro School District high schoolers wait in line for a COVID-19 vaccine at the Oregon Convention Center in May.With cases of COVID-19 surging and health experts reporting that the highly contagious Delta variant is spreading rapidly in Oregon, concern about the possibility of outbreaks in schools is growing.

Children under 12 are not yet eligible for COVID-19 vaccines, and large numbers of unvaccinated students will be back in the classroom full-time in about six weeks.

The Hillsboro School District's board of directors planned to discuss an updated masking policy at its retreat Tuesday, Aug. 3.

But Gov. Kate Brown preempted that discussion by mandating Thursday, July 29, that everyone wear masks in schools this year regardless of vaccination status.

As health officials plead for unvaccinated people to get shots immediately, Hillsboro School District officials recently started working in partnership with the Northwest Education Service District to help eligible students and their families access vaccines.

NWESD and HSD used federal COVID-19 relief funds to hire three people to serve as "family health navigators," said Alma Hernandez, who has been overseeing the work for the Hillsboro School District.

Working with vaccine providers in the area, the family health navigators have been calling students' families, providing information about where to get vaccines and asking whether they need help scheduling vaccine appointments, Hernandez said. She added that they try to make calls when people are unlikely to be at work.

The effort comes after the school district offered eligible high schoolers and their families an opportunity to be bussed to the Oregon Convention Center to receive shots in May. About 100 high schoolers signed up and many more families members participated as well, Hernandez said.

In Washington County, vaccination rates among youth are well above the statewide average, Oregon Health Authority data shows. But the percentage of vaccinated youth is still far below the 80% threshold health experts say is needed for effective herd immunity.

For children age 12 to 17, 53.1% have been fully vaccinated in Washington County, compared to 42% statewide.

The family health navigators are focusing on reaching out to families that belong to underrepresented groups, families living in zip codes with low vaccination rates and Spanish-speakers, Hernandez said.

In Washington County, 48.6% and 46.4% of people who identify as Hispanic/Latino and Black, respectively, have been fully vaccinated, data show.

"We know that there are barriers in accessing registration to the vaccine," Hernandez said, noting that online registration can be a challenge and transportation is not always available for all residents. "The goal of the family health navigators is just to reduce the barriers."

The family health navigators are also currently working to produce a mailer with vaccine information to send to families, she said.

Beth Graser, spokesperson for the Hillsboro School District, said district officials have received pushback on their efforts to help people access vaccines.

"We have had some people contact us quite angry, feeling like we are pushing people to get vaccinated," Graser said. "We are merely providing the opportunity and trying to make sure that people have access. Vaccination is a proven strategy for the mitigation of COVID-19 spread."

While President Joe Biden on Thursday ordered all federal workers to attest to receiving the vaccine or submit to mandatory testing and other requirements, the Hillsboro School District hasn't yet discussed such a requirement for employees or students.

Graser said the COVID-19 vaccine is still voluntary, adding that the district will take the lead on any vaccine requirements from the Oregon Department of Education and local public health officials.

Hernandez said the family health navigators still call people and find that they have questions about the vaccine. Since they are not health experts, the family health navigators provide people with ways they can ask questions of the right people, she said.

The family health navigators have been successful because they're getting positive responses and people are asking questions, Hernandez said.

"Not only are we being successful in providing access to information but we're building a stronger relationship with families," she said. "Families are appreciative of that."

In partnership with Virginia Garcia Memorial Health Center, there will be three vaccination events at Hillsboro School District high schools the first week of August.

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