In August, Mayor Bill de Blasio made an enormous bet to reopen New York City schools for in-person learning. By requiring all of the city’s 150,000 public-school employees to get a shot, he hoped to prevent a third academic year from going remote because of the virus. Employees who did not, he warned, would be suspended without pay.
So on Monday morning, the first day the mandate was enforced, about 8,000 employees were unable to report for work because they refused to be vaccinated. De Blasio took a victory lap at a press conference where he announced that 95 percent of employees were vaccinated, including 96 percent of teachers. A surge of last-minute vaccinations seemed to have avoided the sort of mass suspensions that officials feared and the relative few who were suspended, de Blasio said, had been replaced by vaccinated substitutes. “As of today all of the employees in our 1,600 schools are vaccinated,” he triumphantly said.
The Department of Education reported that 43,000 shots have been administered since the mandate was announced in August, with 18,000 coming in the past 10 days alone. About 1,000 teachers were vaccinated over the weekend, according to Michael Mulgrew, president of the United Federation of Teachers, which held its own press conference on Monday. (Mulgrew added that UFT members who are vaccinated before the end of the month will be able to return to work the following day.) Teachers who choose to remain unvaccinated will have to make a decision at the end of the month: voluntarily resign or remain on unpaid leave for a year. Both options allow teachers to retain health insurance benefits until early September, 2022. Teachers who choose neither option will be fired in December, according to an email sent to employees who had yet to comply.
Although the mayor had said all employees must be vaccinated by Friday at 5 p.m. or be placed on unpaid leave, the Department of Education told staff they could be vaccinated as late as Monday morning and still show up for work. While it’s unclear exactly how many teachers were unable to report for work on Monday morning, the mandate did trigger concerns about staffing shortages. The city’s substitute-teacher portal listed thousands of slots available over the weekend, while the city said roughly 9,000 vaccinated substitutes were standing by to fill in. Mulgrew said staff shortages could hit some areas of the school system particularly hard, especially those that work with children who have special needs and school safety agents.
Of particular concern was Staten Island, where the vaccination rate has lagged behind the citywide average. Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter allayed fears about staffing shortages at schools there, such as New Dorp High School. “Twenty staff members in a school of that size, while not insignificant, was fully covered by the work of the superintendent, by the work of the central staff, and by the work of the subs,” she said at Monday’s press conference.
“This is going to be a total nightmare,” said Rachel Maniscalco, 36, who taught English and special education at Concord High School in Staten Island. Maniscalco received an email from the DOE on Saturday notifying her that she had been placed on unpaid leave. Maniscalco said she would not be getting a shot before the end of the month because she did not feel drug manufacturers had been transparent about the makeup of their vaccines. “The mayor wants to say that we’re replaceable, but the truth of the matter is that this week is going to be so detrimental to the DOE employees, their students, and their kids’ families,” she said.
The school system’s mandate comes nearly a week after New York began requiring vaccinations at health-care facilities statewide. That order resulted in a surge of vaccinations but left some hospitals with staffing shortages, forcing administrators to cancel elective surgeries in some instances. In Brooklyn, SUNY Downstate Medical Center postponed radiology appointments and canceled elective C-sections, according to Gothamist. Unlike mandates in other states and cities, New York’s mandates do not allow for educators or health-care workers to rely on regular testing as an alternative to vaccination.
“I never considered getting the shot at all. I don’t even do flu shots,” said Jo Rose, 30, a teacher’s assistant in the Bronx who was suspended over the weekend. Rose said she was one of only a handful of holdouts at her school; most of her unvaccinated co-workers caved to the pressure the mandate had placed on them since it was announced. Rose has not been vaccinated because she believes the government has too much control over people. “I had to tell my kids on Friday that I was leaving. They thought I was cracking a joke on them,” she said. “They really thought I wasn’t being serious. They were like, ‘Why don’t you just go get it?’ And I just tried to explain to them that I have a right to decide over my body.”
The mandate survived a number of legal challenges, including a last-ditch appeal to Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, which was denied. About 3,000 UFT members applied for religious exemptions or medical accommodations, Mulgrew said, but only 1,000 had been granted. Michael Kane, 43, a teacher in Queens, was originally denied a religious exemption but is in the process of appealing that decision. As of Monday morning, Kane was not allowed inside his school building, but he has yet to be placed on unpaid leave.
“It’s been very conflicting,” said Paulette O’Neal, a 52-year-old teacher’s assistant at P.S. 307 in Brooklyn, who said she was denied a religious exemption. O’Neal said she had not gotten vaccinated because she was concerned about the “shadow-banning and censoring” of information about vaccines. “They don’t want us in the building. Or to let us talk to our children or their parents. They just want us to disappear,” she said.
De Blasio said he was considering whether to extend the mandate to other city employees but would not say which departments might be next.