COVID

Educators will be first NYC workers to face full vaccine mandate

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that all Department of Education employees must have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Sept. 27.

An empty classroom at Public School 143 in Queens on Wednesday, Aug. 18, 2021. New York City plans to join Washington State, Los Angeles and Chicago, which have all announced full vaccine mandates for teachers in the last few weeks. (Sarah Blesener/The New York Times)


NEW YORK — New York City will require all Department of Education employees to have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Sept. 27, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday. The announcement represents a major step in the effort to fully reopen the country’s largest school district next month, and a significant escalation of the mayor’s push to vaccinate more New Yorkers.

De Blasio has put reopening city schools at the center of his plan to help New York recover from the pandemic. The mayor is eager to reassure anxious parents and educators that schools will be safe this year despite an uptick in cases in the past two months linked to the delta variant, especially since the city is no longer offering a remote learning option.

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The city’s vaccine requirement, which applies to roughly 148,000 education workers, is also almost certain to be a harbinger of future mandates around the country for school districts, municipal employees, private businesses and federal government agencies in the days and weeks to come, following the Food and Drug Administration’s approval of the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine for those 16 and older Monday.

Speaking Monday afternoon, President Joe Biden called for broader vaccine mandates across private companies and government agencies, and said it was essential for as many adults as possible to be vaccinated in order to keep students safe in school.

The FDA’s approval has already set off a flurry of activity.

Within minutes, it triggered student vaccination mandates at the State University of New York and City University of New York, along with similar requirements announced by the University of Minnesota system and Louisiana State University.

The Pentagon announced that the country’s 1.4 million active-duty troops would have to be vaccinated. Gov. Philip D. Murphy of New Jersey said that all teachers in that state would have to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. Oil and gas giant Chevron and pharmacy chain CVS both said they would require some of their employees to receive coronavirus vaccinations.

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A joint statement by the American Medical Association, American Hospital Association and American Nurses Association called the FDA approval “a major step forward in the worldwide effort to end this pandemic.”

De Blasio issued the mandate for education workers just moments before the FDA’s decision was announced, as the city looks to finalize its plans this week for school reopening. Schools open at full capacity for the city’s roughly 1 million students on Sept. 13.

The requirement applies to almost all adults in city school buildings, including teachers, principals, custodians, school safety agents and central staff.

Education employees are now the first group of New York City workers to face a full vaccine mandate. Last month, the city issued a mandate for all municipal workers that allowed those who were unvaccinated to opt into weekly testing, an option that remains in place for those who don’t work in schools.

But Monday’s announcement opens the door to a broader vaccine mandate for city workers, including police officers, which the mayor said the city was considering. About 69% of adults in New York City are fully vaccinated.

“We know this is going to help ensure that everyone is safe,” de Blasio said during a news conference, adding that city schools had extremely low rates of virus transmission last year. The mandate, the mayor said, will help the city “build on that success.”

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New York City joins Los Angeles and Chicago, as well as Washington state and Oregon, which have all announced full vaccine mandates for teachers in the past few weeks.

In New York, de Blasio’s push is largely supported by educators, many of whom are concerned about returning to full-capacity schools amid the delta surge, and by the city’s powerful teachers union, the United Federation of Teachers. The city is still negotiating with the UFT and other unions representing education staff over what will happen to employees who do not comply with the mandate.

COVID-19 Vaccine

De Blasio announced last month that educators who did not comply with the vaccination or testing requirement would be suspended without pay, and a similar consequence is likely for those who refuse to be vaccinated under the new mandate.

On Monday, Michael Mulgrew, the president of the UFT, acknowledged that the city had the legal right to create such a mandate, but said key details were still being hashed out.

“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,” Mulgrew said. The leader of the city’s principals union echoed that message in his own statement.

But de Blasio insisted that even if bargaining was stalled or did not succeed, the mandate would still go forward.

The mayor and Meisha Porter, the schools chancellor, said they expected a high level of compliance from school staff on the new mandate, which was reflected in conversations with teachers across the city who said they strongly supported it. “I do not expect a staffing shortage,” Porter said.

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Still, at least some DOE employees who have resisted getting the vaccine said they were thinking about quitting before the start of the school year.

Carlotta Pope, a high school English teacher in Brooklyn who has not been vaccinated, said she would consider teaching in a district that did not have vaccine mandates.

“You’re telling me now I have to remove my right” to decide whether to be vaccinated, she said. “Me personally, I won’t be a part of that.” Pope said she was considering getting vaccinated but she was frustrated that she would no longer have a choice if she wished to keep her job.

But many teachers greeted the news with relief.

Mike Loeb, a middle school science teacher in the Bronx, said knowing that all adults working in schools would be vaccinated come fall would lessen his anxiety about seeing hallways and classrooms at full capacity again, after a year when many children were learning from home.

“If we’re vaccinated, if we’re masking our children and adults, I’m hopeful we can all be safe,” he said. Loeb said only a tiny minority of his students performed as well online last year as they would have in person.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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