NYC to require vaccines for all education department employees

A medical worker administers a COVID-19 vaccine in the right arm of a school nurse as she sits.
A Colorado teacher receives a vaccination. All New York City educators will be required to receive at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27. (Rachel Ellis / The Denver Post)

New York City will require every education department employee to be vaccinated this school year, department officials said Monday.

All 148,000 education employees will be required to receive at least one vaccine dose by Sept. 27, about two weeks after schools open to students on Sept. 13. They will also be required to show proof of a second vaccine dose 45 days after their first shot, according to education department spokesperson Danielle Filson.

The vaccine mandate will apply to teachers, principals, substitutes, and maintenance staff, city officials said. The requirement also applies to school safety agents, who are police department employees.

The mandate does not apply to school bus drivers. It also does not apply to staff who work in public pre-kindergarten programs that operate outside of education department buildings, which includes a majority of students in the city’s universal pre-K programs.

Mayor Bill de Blasio indicated that the U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s full approval of the Pfizer vaccine helped clear the way for the vaccine mandate. (All three available vaccines in the United States were previously authorized on an emergency basis.)

“This is a game-changing moment,” de Blasio said of the FDA’s decision. “We’ve been waiting for this for a long time.”

The mayor’s decision makes New York City the latest school district to issue a vaccine mandate. Los Angeles and Chicago, the nation’s second and third largest school districts, respectively, had already done so.

Before Monday’s announcement, the city was planning to allow teachers to submit to weekly testing if they are not fully vaccinated by the time classes start. Officials did not immediately say what consequences educators might face if they refuse to be vaccinated; de Blasio acknowledged that some details of the vaccine mandate would still need to be negotiated with labor unions.

The announcement drew mixed reactions from union leaders. District Council 37, which represents crossing guards, cafeteria workers, and other school aides, said Monday evening that they plan to lodge a complaint over the mandate. “We do not believe that the city has the legal authority to change the terms and conditions of employment without bargaining,” Henry Garrido, the union’s executive director, said in a statement.

Union leaders representing teachers, principals and other school administrators did not question the city’s legal authority to issue the vaccine mandate but said they would negotiate with the city over medical exemptions and other details.

“While the city is asserting its legal authority to establish this mandate, there are many implementation details, including provisions for medical exceptions, that by law must be negotiated with the UFT and other unions, and if necessary, resolved by arbitration,” said Michael Mulgrew, head of the teachers union. (Union officials did not say what other details they were negotiating.)

City officials said that at least 63% of education department employees have received at least one vaccine dose, but that figure doesn’t include employees who were vaccinated outside of New York City. At least 56% of children ages 12-17 have had at least one dose, officials said.

The announcement comes as the city grapples with rising infections, a more infectious delta variant of the coronavirus, and amid the mayor’s push to reopen schools for in-person instruction with no remote option. The vaccine mandate may help persuade parents that the city is doing everything it can to make school buildings safe, as children 11 and under remain ineligible for vaccination.

Last week, the city announced a similar vaccine mandate for high school athletes and coaches participating in sports with “high risk” of contracting the virus. De Blasio said he is not considering a broader mandate to vaccinate eligible students.

The mandate that educators be vaccinated is part of a number of other safety precautions city officials are taking as they require all students to return to classrooms this fall. Students and staff will be required to wear masks, for instance, and each classroom will have two air purifiers.

Still, other major safety rules remain unclear, including whether teachers and students will be tested regularly and how the city will handle positive coronavirus cases when they crop up in classrooms.

De Blasio said the city planned to release a detailed handbook for parents this week that will explain “how we’re setting up for the school year and the different measures that will be in place.”

Officials have already dropped some hints about how the city’s coronavirus testing policy may work for schools, indicating that families will be provided at-home testing kits and the frequency of testing may be dictated by neighborhood and school vaccination rates.

Correction: Due to incorrect information from an education department spokesperson, a previous version of this story said all pre-kindergarten staff will be required to be vaccinated. In fact, only those who work in education department buildings will be subject to the vaccine mandate.

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