NYC schools still require visitors to be vaccinated. Could that soon change?

A masked woman receives a shot from a doctor.
NYC schools chief David Banks said Thursday he is open to relaxing the visitor vaccine mandate. (Luis Alvarez / Getty Images)

Though parents and other visitors to New York City school buildings still must show proof of vaccination to enter, schools Chancellor David Banks signaled that he might support relaxing the rule.

On Thursday, a Staten Island mom who sits on the Chancellor’s Parent Advisory Council asked the schools chief if the city would consider dropping the vaccine requirement, perhaps requiring a negative test instead. Banks responded that it was an “interesting point, and it’s one that we should be considering instead of being so, so final.”

The decision ultimately rests with Mayor Eric Adams and health officials, the chancellor said. But Banks vowed to set up a meeting with the city’s health commissioner to discuss it. 

“Let’s raise this issue and see if there’s a middle ground,” he said.

The requirement that caregivers and other school visitors show proof of at least one vaccine dose to visit school buildings is one of a dwindling set of virus mitigation measures that officials have kept in place. Although school staff still must be vaccinated, the city has dropped mask mandates, no longer requires student athletes or prom attendees to be vaccinated, and does not conduct daily health screenings for students and staff entering school buildings.

The current rule prevents unvaccinated caregivers from entering school buildings to meet with teachers or attend school events. (Some schools appear to enforce the rule more vigorously than others.) It may also complicate participation in a variety of parent councils and public meetings, which are increasingly being held in person. By contrast, parent teacher conferences remain virtual this year.

New York City appears to be an outlier in requiring school visitors to show proof of vaccination.

Dennis Roche, the co-founder of Burbio, a company that compiled data on school health policies, said vaccine requirements for students and staff have largely disappeared, though the organization did not track vaccine policies for visitors. The organization recently stopped tabulating school COVID measures because few districts have mitigation policies in place at this point, Roche said.

The vast majority of adult New York City residents have already received at least one vaccine dose, according to city statistics, though disparities exist by race and neighborhood. Roughly three-quarters of Black adults have at least one vaccine dose, followed by 78% for white adults. Over 97% of Hispanic and Asian adults have received at least one COVID-19 vaccine, according to city data. 

Meanwhile, 53% of public school students ages 5 and up are fully vaccinated, while 59% have received one dose, according to city data from November, the most recent figures that have been publicly released. 

NeQuan McLean, a parent and president of Community Education Council 16 in Bedford-Stuyvesant, said he’s glad that Banks is open to reconsidering the vaccination policy.

“We have parents who weren’t able to go to Christmas shows or Thanksgiving feasts or can’t see their kids perform because they’re not vaccinated,” he said, though some schools have taken steps to stream events online so unvaccinated community members can participate. 

McLean said he’s worried some unvaccinated members of his community education council won’t be able to participate in their meeting later this month at a school building, the first time the group is meeting face-to-face in nearly three years.

“We want to make it so that everyone is protected but that we’re not excluding folks,” he said.

Some public health experts said nixing the vaccine requirement for visitors would be unlikely to cause harm to school communities. Since a single dose of the vaccine is not likely to prevent transmission, the benefit is largely to prevent serious illness or hospitalization rather than protecting the wider school community from infection.

If the goal is to prevent infections, “it would be better having [unvaccinated visitors] mask — or have them do a negative rapid test before they come in,” said Susan Hassig, assistant professor of epidemiology at Tulane University. 

The other benefit of the vaccine requirement is to spur people to get vaccinated who might not otherwise consider it, though public health experts said the impact on vaccine uptake was not likely to be substantial.

Patrick Gallahue, a spokesperson for the city’s health department, did not explain the city’s rationale for the vaccine mandate for school visitors. But he indicated that the city may consider a change to the policy. 

“As we’ve said many times before, we will always follow the science,” Gallahue wrote in an email. “We’re reviewing all options, and we will share any updates.”

Patrick Wall contributed.

Alex Zimmerman is a reporter for Chalkbeat New York, covering NYC public schools. Contact Alex at azimmerman@chalkbeat.org.

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