As vaccine mandate kicks in, 95% of NYC schools staff have received COVID shots

Mayor Bill de Blasio Chancellor Porter will join school leadership at Phyl’s Academy in Brooklyn to announce 3K for all and visit Pre-K students in class March 23, 2021. Michael Appleton/Mayoral Photography Office
Mayor Bill de Blasio visited Phyl’s Academy in Brooklyn earlier this year. New York City’s vaccine mandate for educators took effect Monday. (Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office)
The fight to rebuild school communities after years of pandemic-era uncertainty.

New York City’s vaccine mandate for more than 150,000 education employees took effect Monday morning, requiring those without at least one dose to be put on unpaid leave.

The threat of losing their salaries seemed to be a big incentive for staff members to get vaccinated, with the share of education department employees jumping roughly 20 percentage points in less than a month.

By Monday, 95% of department staff had received at least one dose, including 96% of teachers and 99% of principals, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday. About 43,000 education department employees received a vaccine dose after the mandate was announced on Aug. 23.

That left roughly 7,400 unvaccinated education department employees, including about 3,100 teachers. Unvaccinated educators will continue to receive health insurance and will be allowed to return to their schools if they receive a first vaccine dose. About 1,000 educators have received medical or religious accommodations, according to a teachers union spokesperson.

District Council 37, a union representing about 20,000 school employees including crossing guards and cafeteria workers, said 93% of those staffers are vaccinated, up from 68% at the beginning of September. Vaccination rates have been significantly lower for school safety agents: 84% have received at least one dose, de Blasio said.

“Every adult in our schools is now vaccinated and that’s going to be the rule going forward,” de Blasio said. “That’s the way to keep kids safe and the whole school community safe.”

The nation’s largest school system is among the first wave of districts to issue such a mandate. Though the implementation was delayed by a week due to multiple legal challenges from a group of educators and unions representing school staff, those challenges have so far been unsuccessful.

City officials are hoping the mandate will help reduce the risk of virus transmission and the disruptions that come with it, as the more contagious delta variant continues to circulate at the same time that many classrooms are back to full capacity given there is no longer an option to learn virtually and social distancing rules have been relaxed.

Since district schools reopened on Sept. 13, more than 2,300 of roughly 1 million students have tested positive and so have 943 staffers out of tens of thousands of employees. Those infections have led to roughly 2,500 full or partial classroom closures out of roughly 65,000 classrooms.

‘Young people ready to take those jobs’

In the days before the mandate took effect, school leaders and union officials raised concerns that even a relatively small percentage of staff who refuse the vaccine could cause significant disruptions. Although many schools have vaccination rates that approach 100%, union leaders warned that others would likely face staff shortages, forcing principals to scramble to cover classrooms by tapping substitutes, central office staff, or other school employees such as counselors who don’t typically work in classrooms.

City officials have insisted that the pool of vaccinated substitute teachers exceeds the numbers of unvaccinated staff. 

“We got a lot of talented young people who are ready to take those jobs,” de Blasio said. “There are literally people lined up waiting to grab those opportunities.”

But there were signs that the education department may be concerned about potential shortages: An email sent to substitute teachers over the weekend said they could earn a $50 a day bonus for picking up open jobs, in addition to the $199.27 daily rate they typically earn.

The city’s teachers union alerted its members that it negotiated procedures to cover roles vacated by unvaccinated staff, including “emergency coverage” to fill in for classroom teachers by counselors, social workers, and psychologists. The union said that funneling students whose classroom teacher went on unpaid leave into other classrooms should be used only as a last resort.

The city also redeployed staff from central offices into schools. Some said they were sent to assignments they aren’t qualified for, taking them away from their day-to-day jobs. One tweeted that she was assigned to a school that didn’t seem to need her. 

So far, several school staffers have said they’ve been able to plug gaps for the most part. At Pace High School in Manhattan, for example, five of six previously unvaccinated teachers got their first shots last week, said teacher Alex Driver, based on what school officials told staff. A second staffer at the school said the unvaccinated teacher’s absence was covered by a substitute.

“It seems to be a normal day,” Driver said. “I think the fact that five of six got the shot last week shows it is an effective mandate.”

‘People are shouldering a lot’

At a Queens elementary school, five employees were absent: two unvaccinated teachers; one teacher who got vaccinated over the weekend but was feeling side effects; a speech teacher; and a cafeteria worker.

That school was able to find a sub and shuffle existing staff to fill much of the holes. The school’s after-school director — who speaks Spanish and has a teaching license — stepped in to cover for a dual language teacher’s class. An integrated class that typically includes special education and general education students taught by two teachers was being taught by one instead while the other teacher recovered after this weekend’s vaccine dose.

The school didn’t have coverage for the speech teacher, but was documenting missed sessions so students could make them up when they find someone to cover missed therapies.

Still, the unvaccinated cafeteria worker wound up reporting to work on Monday and refused to leave the building. She was so agitated at the requests to leave that police and mental health staff from a local hospital were summoned to the school.

After about two hours, with 20 minutes before students were scheduled to begin lunch, she was escorted out of the school, according to an assistant principal, who was involved in the episode and spoke on the condition of anonymity.

“Ultimately, people are shouldering a lot, and there isn’t a playbook for responding to support adults who are in crisis,” the assistant principal said. “We’re trying to use our deescalation strategies to respond with compassion.”

Even though the police were involved, the cafeteria worker was not physically restrained, and the staff did what they could to defuse the situation and lean on mental health professionals, the administrator said.

Although the vaccine mandate has caused some headaches, “it is one of the only things we can do to get to a different place as a city and as a community around the virus,” the assistant principal said.

Students with disabilities missing paraprofessionals

Still, with thousands of education staff still unvaccinated, some students were significantly impacted by shortages on Monday. Multiple school staffers said finding substitute paraprofessionals, aides who often provide extra support for students with disabilities, was particularly challenging.

Brooklyn mom Jessica Waverka got a call from her school’s leader at 7:30 a.m. Monday morning that her 7-year-old son’s dedicated paraprofessional would be on leave and that the school already submitted a request for someone to cover the role. 

The second grader, who is autistic, is a flight risk with a history of running from classrooms and struggles with emotional regulation as well as being able to communicate his concerns. He also has a feeding disorder and requires help with food intake. 

For a brief moment, Waverka thought she could breathe a sigh of relief. Another student who has a dedicated para was out, so the school assigned that para to Waverka’s son. She went to school with her son to help ease him into working with the other para. It took more than half an hour before he would leave with the para. Then about two hours later, the para’s usual student showed up, and Waverka’s son was on his own. 

His mom said she was waiting by the phone the rest of the day in case she needed to pick him up. 

“An inexperienced para who is not familiar with the needs of autistic children will be very damaging. He does not transition well. He is mourning the sudden loss of his beloved para,” she wrote to her school as she reached out to other education department officials to resolve the situation. “As the Mayor celebrates 95% vaccination rate, those 5% of staff missing are being felt in a massive way.”

Waverka was pleased with the city’s vaccine mandate, but wished the department could have planned better for the loss of staffers, and she worried about other parents in similar situations who were not able to advocate in the same way she could.

“This is a child who needs a para for safety. It is a child who needs a para for emotional regulation,” Waverka said. “This is not a matter of a warm body.”

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