By Amy Zimmer and Christina Veiga
As the vaccine mandate for New York City teachers is set to take effect next week, schools are bracing for this Tuesday when thousands of educators might be barred from their classrooms.
Mayor Bill de Blasio promised to have “thousands and thousands of vaccinated, experienced substitute teachers ready to go.” Central education department staffers could also be deployed to schools, he said at a press conference on Thursday.
But on Thursday the unions representing teachers, principals, and other school administrations called on the city for a delay, saying there wasn’t enough time for schools to implement it. The unions have also been fighting the mandate itself, joining a lawsuit against the city.
Their concern is notable because the unions have gotten their way when they’ve asked for delays in the past — such as last year, when the Council for School Supervisors and Administrators and the United Federation of Teachers banded together to push back the start of school.
Roughly 13% of the city’s 78,000 teachers remain unvaccinated, according to recent data from education department officials. That translates to more than 10,000 teachers who have until the end of this coming Monday to show proof of having received their first dose. Nearly 20,000 other education department employees also lack proof of vaccination.
“Any situation where additional staffing is needed, we have staff that can be deployed very quickly to wherever they’re needed in the city,” de Blasio said. “The message for parents is that you’re going to have buildings with only vaccinated adults in them.”
Looking for Substitutes
Principals are expected to receive new funding this Monday to cover the cost of staffing shortages based on the number of teachers refusing to comply with the vaccine mandate, according to an email the Office of the Chief Operating Officer sent Thursday.
Schools can hire certified teachers as “regular substitutes” for the remainder of the year, the letter stated. Additionally, staffers from the education department’s central offices — those with and without teaching licenses — were told this week that they might be redeployed to campuses for various school-based jobs.
The new funding is for two weeks of coverage, with additional money expected to be sent in the “coming weeks” as schools understand their long-term needs, the letter said.
Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, was doubtful the city has enough substitutes to fill all of the positions that could be vacant come Tuesday, saying that he was particularly concerned about low vaccination rates among personnel who don’t work in classrooms, such as cafeteria staff or school safety agents.
And while vaccination rates for teachers and administrators are high across the city, there are pockets of individual schools with much lower rates, he said.
“Who’s missing, and how are they concentrated?” he asked. “I’m hearing of schools, large high schools where over 100 people still haven’t uploaded a vaccination card. Whether they’re vaccinated or not, no one knows.”
He called it “irresponsible” to inform schools this Monday about the staff they may or may not have the following day.
“It’s not fair to families, and it’s not good for kids,” he said.
Even if the city is able to find subs to fill in for unvaccinated employees, Cannizzaro said young students need consistent relationships with teachers, and older students need educators with expertise to help them catch up after more than a year of interrupted learning.
“I believe that the mayor thinks that a body is a body — get them in, and we’re good,” Cannizzaro said. “That’s no way to run a school.”
Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, echoed calls for a delay.
“The principals’ union is right — our schools are not ready for the implementation of the vaccine mandate,” he said in a statement. “I hope for once City Hall is listening to its own school leaders and finally starts to put together a reasonable plan to face the challenge of keeping our children safe.”
‘They’re Not Going to Be Getting a Paycheck’
Teachers have had more than nine months to get vaccinated, and were given priority in January, following health care workers. Earlier in the summer, de Blasio said that teachers, along with other city employees, would have to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing.
At the end of August, he announced a vaccine mandate for educators and other city workers, giving them about a month to comply. A few weeks later, he extended the mandate — with the same deadline — to pre-K and after-school staffers in city-funded programs.
Education department officials did not immediately respond to questions about whether the funding would also be sent to city-funded early childhood education programs.
When it comes to the legal challenge against the city’s mandate, a judge on Wednesday said he expected a ruling early next week, and recognized the city’s legal authority to move forward with implementing the mandate, lifting a temporary restraining order that could have delayed it.
Separately, the UFT won an agreement from the city through arbitration to allow unvaccinated staffers without a medical or religious exemption to be placed on unpaid leave. Those with religious or medical exemptions will continue to work for the education department in some capacity outside of the classroom.
Some schools may be more affected than others in terms of the number of unvaccinated teachers. Staten Island City Council member Joe Borelli tweeted that some schools in his district have dozens of unvaccinated teachers — and implied that families support their decisions.
Hi @NYCSchools, Petrides School has 86 unvaxxed staff, IS34R has 35, IS75R over 50 & IS7R over 40…how are they supposed to operate on Tuesday? Seriously— Joe Borelli (@JoeBorelliNYC) September 23, 2021
I’ll point out, parents, students & staff are comfortable enough to have high attendance rates there today. Its you, not them
At the Michael J. Petrides School, a K-12 school on Staten Island mentioned in the tweet as having 80 unvaccinated staffers, at least four classrooms were closed as of Thursday, according to public data.
De Blasio remained optimistic that a wave of last-minute vaccine-takers over the coming days would help schools.
“People are out there getting vaccinated. I have no question we’re going to close the gap intensely,” he said.
And for those who refused to get their jabs: “In short order, they’re not going to be getting a paycheck,” de Blasio added.
Next week, new rules for quarantines also take effect as COVID testing for unvaccinated students ramps up.
Unvaccinated students who are masked and are spaced three feet apart will no longer have to quarantine if they are a close contact of a positive student, which will likely mean that lunch time will be the major focus for test and trace investigations. Elementary school classrooms still will have to quarantine if a teacher tests positive, education officials said.
COVID testing will ramp up to weekly from biweekly, though only 10% of unvaccinated children who consent will be tested.