Governor says NY teachers are next in line for vaccine, but timeline is uncertain

A medical worker prepares a dose of a COVID vaccine, wearing full protective gear.
A New York City healthcare worker prepares to administer a COVID-19 vaccine. Gov. Cuomo said teachers will be next in line for vaccinations. (Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)

School staff across New York are next in line for coronavirus vaccines, Gov. Andrew Cuomo said Wednesday, though he warned it could take months for many teachers to receive shots.

State officials have prioritized frontline medical workers and nursing home residents and staff for the first round of doses. But the next phase, known as “1b,” will include police, firefighters, people over the age of 75  — and about 870,000 “education workers,” Cuomo said.

The governor’s announcement offers a tantalizing glimmer of hope for thousands of New York City educators, whose primary defense against the virus has been social distancing, masks, and hand-washing. It also could clear a path for more in-person instruction, however the vast majority of families have opted for fully remote instruction this school year.

But even as Mayor Bill de Blasio has pressed for educators to begin receiving vaccinations this month, it’s unclear when the state will start moving to phase 1b, and Cuomo suggested it will not happen immediately.

The state has received about 900,000 doses for 2.1 million people who are currently eligible in the first round. The second round will involve inoculating over 6 million additional people, including educators, in a process that could take weeks or months depending on how quickly the state receives and distributes additional doses, the governor said.

“You don’t have half enough supply to do the health care workers, and the health care workers are the top priority,” said Cuomo, who also expressed confidence that vaccine production would ramp up in the coming months. 

Complicating matters, New York City officials are also struggling to distribute all the vaccines they currently have on hand. As of Wednesday, about 130,000 vaccines have been administered, though the city has been given over 480,000 doses. Both of the FDA-approved vaccines require two does several weeks apart; so far, some 2,500 people in New York City have received both shots. 

Cuomo has advised other essential workers who are not yet eligible for the vaccine, such as members of firefighters and teachers unions, to think about whether they can establish their own vaccination plan to lessen the burden on hospitals. Michael Mulgrew, head of the city teachers union, said he will present a plan to the state on Friday. He also said he has been talking to CEOs of various health care networks to help administer the vaccine. He declined to name whom he has spoken with, but said all have been willing to help. He noted that major logistics must be worked out, such as creating a tracking system for who’s received the vaccine and establishing vaccination sites. 

“All of them have capacity in geographic areas, but none of them have capacity in all geographic areas,” Mulgrew said. “We have members living in every area of the city and areas outside of the city.”

While many teachers are eager to get vaccinated, some have expressed skepticism about receiving it, as have a portion of city health care workers who are already eligible for the vaccine but have so far refused it, according to the city’s health and hospitals system. City officials did not respond to a question about whether they would require teachers to be vaccinated. (District school teachers are currently required to submit to random coronavirus testing if they are teaching in person.)

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Stan Pacuk, a dean at P.S. 66 in the Bronx, said he would be “first in line” for a vaccine. He has been teaching in person since buildings reopened in the fall and said he has felt safe as possible without a vaccine because of weekly testing, masks, and smaller, socially distanced classes. Federal approvals of the vaccines have given him enough confidence, he said, adding that he thinks anyone entering the school building who is approved to receive a vaccine should be mandated to get one. 

“If we really want kids back in the school, then everyone in the building should be vaccinated, and if we pick and choose who that applies to, I don’t think we can get everybody back any time soon,” Pacuk said. 

There are also questions about when children will be able to get inoculated. The vaccine produced by Moderna is approved for those 18 and older, for now, while the one from Pfizer is approved for those 16 and older. 

Chloe Pashman, education director of a preschool in the Bronx, said she had such a severe reaction to a Diphtheria vaccine as a toddler nearly 40 years ago, that it still makes her nervous about taking the COVID-19 vaccine. She’s since taken tetanus boosters, but only because it was mandated, and did not have a severe reaction. She said she recently took a flu shot for the first time, and felt uncomfortable after experiencing a sore arm, fatigue and chills for about a week. 

Federal officials have reported that severe reactions to the COVID-19 vaccines are very rare. So far 21 of about 1.9 million people have had severe allergic reactions. All have recovered. Those who are concerned about possible reactions are supposed to stay under medical supervision for at least half an hour after receiving their injection, while others are supposed to be monitored for 15 minutes afterward, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Even with this knowledge, Pashman said, she’s worried about not knowing how components of the vaccine would affect her personally. 

First-year teacher Kyle Pierre was hesitant to return to school buildings this fall, but grew more confident after seeing the small class sizes, cleanliness, and “efficient” in-school testing at his Brooklyn school, Academy of Innovative Technology. Pierre is now teaching remotely full-time, as high school buildings remain indefinitely closed, and he goes back and forth on whether schools should remain closed as virus rates rise. But he’s eager to get the vaccine — and to see it mandated — in hopes of returning to normal life.

“I have a bunch of friends who are healthcare workers who have taken it, and they’re fine. And I’m willing to do whatever it is for this to be over,” Pierre said.

As educators wait their turn for the vaccine, some would like to see school buildings shuttered altogether, given rising coronavirus positivity rates, the discovery of a more contagious variant of the virus, and the governor’s decision to eliminate the threshold of a 9% positivity rate over seven days that would have forced school buildings in a particular region of the state to shut their doors. 

Alex Driver, a teacher at PACE High School in Manhattan, said he will get vaccinated as soon as it’s his turn, but he’s concerned that a vaccine for schools staffers alone won’t be sufficient to reopen buildings full-time. For now, he thinks schools should stay closed. He said school-based testing data, which has turned up less than a 1% positivity rate, isn’t a true picture of virus transmission inside of schools because it doesn’t include people who are sick and have been tested outside of school buildings. 

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While trials showed that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines are very likely to protect people from getting sick with COVID-19, there’s not yet evidence that they prevent those who receive it from passing the disease to others, which makes Driver nervous. 

“It’s not just about us, it’s about our students staying safe, our own families staying safe, [and] I think we have to resolve that,” Driver said.

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