With the COVID-19 vaccine mandate about to go into effect, New York City school staff unions have urged the City Hall to delay the deadline lest schools face a staffing crunch.
The city wants all school staff vaccinated, with only a narrow exception for medical and religious exemptions. Yet as of Sept. 24, there are still some 26,000 who haven’t taken the shot, of which more than 10,000 are teachers, based on numbers provided by the city’s Department of Education (DOE). That means about one in five employees would be facing a year of unpaid leave or be forced to take a severance package and leave. The teachers union, United Federation of Teachers (UFT), disputed the DOE numbers, saying 90-95 percent of teachers have received the vaccine. That would leave about 4,000-8,000 unvaccinated teachers.
The city has maintained an upbeat tone.
“The vast majority of employees have been vaccinated and the number will continue to rise over the coming days. We administered 7,000 vaccinations on school campuses across the city last week, hired thousands of new teachers and staff, and have a large reserve of qualified workers who are ready to fill in if needed,” a DOE spokeswoman told The Epoch Times via email.
But the unions still warned of staffing shortages.
“Principals and superintendents have been reaching out consistently to tell us that they are concerned about not having enough staff come Tuesday morning,” said Mark Cannizzaro, president of the Council of School Supervisors and Administrators, the principals union.
Some schools may manage, but some have dozens, even as many as 100, unvaccinated staffers, he said during a Sept. 24 teleconference with reporters.
“Until there’s a plan to make sure schools are safe, we need to reevaluate what we’re doing going forward.”
It was only on Sept. 23 that schools first heard from the city how it plans to resolve staffing issues, according to UFT President Michael Mulgrew.
“We asked for a plan over and over again about what’s going to happen on Tuesday. And yesterday was the first sign of life,” he said during the conference.
The city provided a digital platform where schools can look up available substitute personnel. The city also made funding available for schools to make those hires.
“That is not a plan,” Mulgrew said.
The city assured schools that there are thousands of teachers in the substitute pool, but that’s always the case, Mulgrew said, noting that many of them hold other jobs and are not actually available when called in.
If schools can’t get enough substitutes, they may be forced to combine classes, he said.
“I’m going to put five classrooms in an auditorium … They don’t want to be put in that situation.”
Based on the DOE data, among non-teacher staff, the vaccination rate is as low as 70 percent. Schools need those personnel, such as custodians, teaching aides, security guards, and cafeteria workers to run, Cannizzaro pointed out. If several cafeteria workers don’t show up, a school may be unable to serve lunch, he said.
Only the day before did principals learn that majority of them will only get one school safety agent per school, he said, noting some large ones normally have as many as 20.
As a solution, Mulgrew and Cannizzaro suggested the city should allow unvaccinated staffers to still come to work for as long as needed to resolve staffing issues at their individual schools.
‘Who’s the Genius’?
One major issue the union heads pointed out was the timing of the mandate.
Teachers and other staff have until midnight on Sept. 27 to let their schools know if they will or won’t come to work the next morning, Cannizzaro said.
He explained it would have been better to put the deadline before the start of the school year, before a holiday, or at least a long weekend.
“Perhaps we would have had enough time to make contingency plans to be ready to welcome students,” he said.
“Who’s the genius who decided to do it on a Monday by midnight?” Mulgrew said.
The city workers union, which has been fighting the mandate in court, initially managed to get it put on hold. But the court lifted the restraining order on Sept. 23.
“This case has already led to progress in protecting the rights of our members, since the city—in the wake of the court’s initial issuance of the restraining order—admitted that there can be exceptions to the vaccine mandate,” Municipal Labor Committee Chair Harry Nespoli said in a Sept. 22 statement.
“The court—while lifting the restraining order—has not made a final decision, and we are preparing additional material to support our case.”
The city described the mandate as a tool to reduce the risk posed by the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) virus, which causes COVID-19, as well as to prevent school closures due to outbreaks. It imposed a slew of other restrictions including mandatory masks for both students and staff, 3-feet distancing between students when possible, and biweekly random testing (among students whose parents consented). The testing frequency was increased to weekly upon UFT’s request. Based on the rules, just one student testing positive could lead to the whole class being relegated to remote learning for 7-10 days, regardless of whether the others test positive of not. Schools have also nixed supposedly riskier activities such as indoor eating and extracurriculars like choir, band, and sports.
Many have opposed the rules, questioning why children, who are at low risk of getting serious symptoms from COVID-19, are being forced to wear masks all day while celebrities and politicians have been seen attending numerous events maskless.
“Adults in the United States are largely moving on with their lives, going to football games, concerts, and galas—while kids are treated like lepers,” New York Post columnist Karol Markowicz commented.
“The real question is: When does it end? Will these restrictions ever go away? What’s the off-ramp for this level of cruel irrationality?”