NYC makes last-minute agreement for preschool vaccine mandate exemptions

A COVID vaccination mandate for New York City teachers takes affect Monday, but pre-K and day care employees are still waiting to learn if they can receive a medical or religious exemption from getting the shots. Above, a student at Preschool of the Arts got their temperature checked on the first day of school this September.
A preschool student has her temperature checked upon arriving at her school in New York City. (B.A. Van Sise / NurPhoto via Getty Images)

Some preschool educators aren’t sure they will still be earning paychecks come Monday morning. 

In the chaotic lead-up to the deadline for New York City school staffers to get the coronavirus vaccination or face unpaid leave, a process to grant medical and religious exemptions for preschool and day care workers was settled only hours before the mandate is set to take effect on Friday. 

While staffers are required to submit proof of one dose by 5 p.m., applications for exemptions aren’t due until Tuesday. Then applicants have another 48 hours, until Thursday, to provide documentation supporting their request.

Though the number of exemptions will likely be small, most will not be approved until after the vaccination mandate kicks-in. That means those planning to apply for medical exemptions, and the centers where they work, might be in limbo next week. 

The last-minute process is just the latest example of how New York City is scrambling to implement one of the country’s most expansive vaccination requirements for school staff. It has been particularly complicated for the city’s patchwork system of pre-K and child care centers, which are all governed by their own leadership, and may or may not be unionized — but still have to comply with city rules. 

About 44,000 children are enrolled in centers that receive public money through contracts with the city, but are not public schools. That includes most students enrolled in the city’s free pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds. Staffers in those centers — about 21,000 in total — were initially carved out of the city’s vaccination requirement for teachers. Then Mayor Bill de Blasio reversed course weeks later. 

That left only about a month for employees to get vaccinated, for complicated negotiations over exemptions and accommodations to play out, and to plan for potential shortages if staff can’t or refuse to get the shots.

Centers that have the capacity to handle exemption requests on their own can do so, and may have set up their own processes earlier. But many centers are small, with just a few classrooms and no staff qualified to determine who should be exempt and who shouldn’t. For those, and any other centers where leaders don’t want to take on the decision-making, a new process was announced Thursday night, with the Day Care Council of New York agreeing to sort through applications. 

“We believed it was necessary to have a centralized process both for employees and employers that was standardized and fair,” said Gregory Brender, director of public policy at the Council, which represents about 200 nonprofit preschool and day care providers.  

The education department, meanwhile, has agreed to pay for substitutes for staff who are granted an accommodation or refuse to get vaccinated. That was a major concern for centers, whose budgets depend on city contracts that were negotiated before the vaccination mandate was announced. 

Brender said that employees can use accrued time off while waiting for their exemption to be processed and will receive back-pay if their request is granted. It’s unclear just how long the Day Care Council will need to approve or reject applications. Brender said it will happen “hopefully pretty quickly.” 

All of that makes it hard to know how many centers will be without teachers, directors, and other essential staff once the mandate kicks in. 

A spokesperson for the education department pointed out that ultimately only .03% of the city’s own workforce ended up qualifying for an exemption, and that the department is helping centers find substitutes.

“We do not expect an insurmountable number of staff to seek exemptions,” said education department spokesperson Sarah Casasnovas. “There are robust supports in place for any program that needs it, and we are actively connecting sites with staff who are ready to fill in.”

While the city has assured that staffing needs will be met, District Council 37, the union that represents many teachers and other staff at contracted sites, has raised doubts.

“We are not confident there could be enough subs to backfill,” union spokesperson Freddi Goldstein said in an email last week.

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