Through the screen of his smartphone camera, Andy Mereckis sees expressions of hope, and relief.
As part of a school internship, the Bellevue Big Picture School ninth-grader is documenting his school district’s efforts to vaccinate employees against COVID-19.
Last Saturday, March 20, the district coordinated a daylong clinic in the Sammamish High School cafeteria in partnership with Safeway and Service Employees International Union (SEIU) Local 925, a union that represents educators and the public service sector. About 480 educators turned out that day to receive a second shot of the Pfizer vaccine.
Donning a blue denim face mask, black hooded Nike sweatshirt and matching jogging pants, the tall, dark-haired Mereckis approached people in the post-vaccination waiting area, asking to take their picture for his project.
Some people politely declined with a shake of their head or hand. Others nodded in approval and posed for Mereckis with their best smiling eyes, their mouths and noses remaining safely masked.
When he approached Leslie Waters, who sat reading quietly by herself at a light gray folding table, she looked up and said, “Why not? It’s kind of like a celebration today!”
For many high school students like Mereckis, the start of freshman year is a rite of passage. There’s a new emphasis on grades and learning to prepare for the future, for college and careers. It’s also a pivotal time in teenage life, when you find teammates, lab partners and potential dates.
But Mereckis began ninth grade at home, his brothers serving as proxy classmates, and instruction taking place on a computer screen. Mereckis said he’s been OK with going on the occasional masked bike ride with some friends, and having the chance to discover and binge-watch television shows like “The Office.” But it’s not the same as being in the classroom or running with members of his cross-country team.
Mereckis said he chose to do an internship this semester with the school district because it would allow him the opportunity to see the vaccination process in action.
“I wanted to do something and I wanted it to be positive,” he said. “I want people to know teachers are doing their part, and I want to motivate kids to go back. I kind of want to show that there’s a light at the end of this dark time.”
During his efforts, he’s met staff from across the district’s 29 schools, from principals to bus drivers. He’s photographed his former kindergarten teacher and seventh-grade health teacher, creating digital impressions of this historic moment in human history.
Mereckis spent about two hours meandering through the waiting area on Saturday, aiming his smartphone screen at anyone who agreed to help his cause. He’s learning how to use a video-building app called Animoto to help him create his digital documentary of the school district’s vaccination efforts. He’ll be editing the photos he took into a presentation alongside teacher- and staff-submitted selfies he’s collecting.
He’d like to do this for the student vaccination process, too, whenever that time comes.
Bellevue School District vaccination clinics began on Feb. 27 and will continue as vaccines are made available. Jeffrey Thomas, assistant superintendent of human resources, said the district’s 3,000 employees are not mandated to be vaccinated against the coronavirus, but the district will roll out an online tool this week for staff to verify if they are.
After Mereckis took a few snaps of Leslie Waters on his smartphone, Waters explained that she’s a retired clerical worker from the district who continues to serve as a substitute paraeducator at Enatai Elementary School. She has been working since November with students receiving in-person special education services. Waters said being vaccinated offers an extra layer of protection for her, the students and her family.
“By getting vaccinated, it’s helping the school system. I’m so grateful that they brought this opportunity to us,” Waters said of the clinic.
Carrie Lang, a registered nurse and the district’s director of special education and health services, said so far there have been no reports of a COVID-19 outbreak in the district. Should one occur, having a record of who has been vaccinated will help the district better determine which staff members should quarantine and who is likely safe.
Lang said planning the Sammamish High clinics adds a new chapter to the district’s pandemic response playbook. They now know how many volunteers and clinicians are needed, and how custodial staff and local emergency responders play key roles in keeping the space clean and safe.
“I would love to offer this for the community if we can get the vaccines. We’re going to keep advocating,” she said.
Bellevue Superintendent Ivan Duran said it was “encouraging to see our students apply their learning, which has continued throughout the pandemic, to motivate and unify us all to get vaccinated.” He met with Mereckis and the student’s mother on Saturday and lauded Mereckis for his efforts.
Liz Mereckis said she’s been glad to drive her son to the clinics to work on the project. “It’s reminded me to be open to letting my children go out and try things on their own. They’re capable of a lot more than we remember,” she said.
Duran said the Bellevue district is working to meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s emergency proclamation deadlines of offering some in-person learning by April 5 for all elementary school students, and by April 19 for middle and high school students. The district is currently surveying families about the building reopening process.
Duran said the vaccination clinic has been “a great example of our community coming together. We’re learning how to respond better and faster.”