New York’s requirement that virtually everyone who works in the city’s public schools be vaccinated against the coronavirus compelled thousands of Department of Education employees to get at least one dose of a vaccine in the past week, leading to extremely high vaccination rates among educators, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday.
About 95 percent of all full-time school employees have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine, the mayor said, including 99 percent of principals, 96 percent of teachers and 94 percent of non-education staff.
Roughly 43,000 doses total have been administered since the mandate was announced in late August, including more than 18,000 shots that were given to staff members since Sept. 24.
New York’s mandate, which took effect when the school day started on Monday, is the mayor’s first attempt at requiring vaccination without a test-out option for any city workers. It could lay the groundwork for a much broader requirement for the city’s vast work force.
“These mandates work, and we’re going to consider in the days ahead what else makes sense to do,” Mr. de Blasio said during a news conference on Monday, when asked about mandating vaccines for other city workers.
The requirement applies to roughly 150,000 people who work in the nation’s largest school system, including teachers, principals, custodians, school safety agents and lunch aides. About 8,000 employees refused to be vaccinated and have been placed on unpaid leave, city officials said Monday.
Educators who get vaccinated after Monday can return to school once they have received a first dose, and Mr. de Blasio said he expected some numbers of educators and staff members to return in the coming weeks.
Those who do not will be barred from entering schools and placed on unpaid leave, with health insurance, for a year.
The mandate includes a requirement for a second shot, though the exact details on deadline and enforcement have not yet been finalized.
While the mandate clearly pushed many employees to get vaccinated, the mayor’s decision to impose it will be further tested this week, as some schools grapple with possible staff shortages caused by the departure of unvaccinated employees.
At many schools, nearly all staff members are vaccinated, and the mandate will have little to no effect. But some schools are likely to have to call on large numbers of substitute teachers. Others will probably have to switch from serving hot lunches to offering grab-and-go options because of a lack of cafeteria aides. About 92 percent of school food workers are vaccinated, leaving about 500 vacancies across the school system.
School lunch aides are part of District Council 37, a union that has led the legal and political charge against the vaccine mandate. But on Monday, Freddi Goldstein, a spokeswoman for the union, said 93 percent of its 20,000 members working in schools, including lunch aides, support staff and crossing guards, had received at least one dose of a vaccine — up from 68 percent last month. D.C. 37 members who refused to get vaccinated, like educators, have the option of taking a one year unpaid leave.
Mr. de Blasio and Meisha Porter, the schools chancellor, said Monday that staffing shortages were either handled over the weekend or were being addressed in real time. The city has a reserve of roughly 9,000 substitute teachers and another 5,000 substitute paraprofessionals who are vaccinated.
Those substitutes would be filling in for employees who have refused to be vaccinated, some of whom protested outside of the Department of Education’s Brooklyn office on Monday along with other people who oppose the vaccine or vaccine mandates, then marched over the Brooklyn Bridge to Manhattan.
While substitutes are available to fill in gaps, that does not mean there are permanent solutions for all schools that have lost significant numbers of teachers or staff members. Union leaders have raised concerns that some substitutes may not be experienced in the subject matters they are asked to cover. The mayor said Monday that some of the substitutes would be hired for permanent positions.
“We have a lot of talented young people who are ready to take those jobs,” he said, referring to the fact that many substitutes are newly certified or recent graduates of education schools who are eager to find permanent teaching roles.
The city has also promised to provide schools with additional money to hire substitutes, and some central office employees who are certified to teach will almost certainly be called into schools, at least temporarily.
Union officials said they were particularly concerned about school safety agents who had refused to get vaccinated. They work for the Police Department and cannot be easily replaced. About 82 percent of agents have gotten at least one vaccine dose, the mayor said, leaving about 800 job vacancies in schools. By comparison, the Police Department had an overall vaccination rate of 67 percent as of Friday.
The last-minute rush by school employees to get shots mirrored a similar scenario involving health care workers around the state, thousands of whom hurried to get vaccinated in the days before a mandate for employees at hospitals and nursing homes took effect.
City officials must now determine whether they can achieve similar success among other city employees and their unions, particularly groups that have had relatively low vaccination rates, including police officers and sanitation workers.
The city’s legal authority to require vaccines for its employees was reinforced when a lawsuit seeking to halt the mandate — filed by a coalition of unions representing school workers, including the United Federation of Teachers — was unsuccessful.
“Where there’s political will, there’s a judicial way to mandate vaccines,” said David Bloomfield, a professor of education law and policy at the City University of New York’s Graduate Center and Brooklyn College.
“And in schools, especially, there is a lot of legal precedent in the face of forceful pushback by staff,” he said.
A group of teachers filed a separate legal challenge seeking at least a temporary injunction to the mandate. The request, although briefly granted by a federal appeals court judge, has now been denied by two other federal courts. A panel of judges of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit will hear the plaintiffs’ appeal on Oct. 14.
The teachers also petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to take up the case, Justice Sonia Sotomayor denied the request on Friday without referring it to the full court.
Confusion over the temporary injunction led Mr. de Blasio to delay the mandate by a week, which also enabled him to satisfy a request from union leaders who represent teachers and principals and who had argued that schools needed more time to prepare for staff shortages.
The mayor has staked part of his legacy on successfully reopening the public schools amid the pandemic, and he has said for weeks that ensuring that all adults in school buildings are vaccinated is the best way to keep the system safe.
Although the city saw extremely low virus-transmission rates when school buildings reopened for part-time, in-person learning last year, some educators and parents have expressed serious concerns about returning amid the continuing threat posed by the highly contagious Delta variant.
The city is not offering students a remote-learning option this year, frustrating some parents who are still uncomfortable sending their children back into classrooms. Some families are participating in an informal strike, keeping their children enrolled without sending them into classrooms.
A few thousand medically vulnerable children have the option of learning from home or receiving in-person instruction at home.
Three weeks into the school year, it is too early to tell whether the city can keep students as safe as it did last year, when far fewer children came to school. There are roughly 600,000 more children in classrooms this year than last.
Since Sept. 13, 1,210 of the city’s 65,000 classroom spaces have closed temporarily because of virus cases and potential exposures. There have been over 2,358 cases detected among the city’s one million students, and 943 among tens of thousands of staff members. So far, only one school has closed entirely because of an outbreak. It has since reopened.
Last week, the mayor increased testing in schools and relaxed quarantine rules, a shift meant to mitigate the disruptions prompted by frequent classroom closings during the first week of classes. The mayor’s original plan to test only 10 percent of consenting unvaccinated people in schools every other week had been criticized by public health experts, and testing of unvaccinated students only is now happening weekly.
The vaccine mandate took effect at a crucial moment for the city and its schools. New York’s overall number of virus cases has been declining for several weeks, and elementary school children are likely to become eligible for vaccination by Thanksgiving.
But further disruption is almost inevitable. There are still many unvaccinated middle and high school students, even though children 12 and older have been eligible for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine since the spring. There will almost certainly be a significant number of younger children who do not get vaccinated immediately even after they become eligible.
And because breakthrough cases among vaccinated students will also remain a concern, temporary classroom closings and even entire building shutdowns will continue.
Mr. de Blasio has said he has no plans to institute a vaccination mandate for children. On Friday, Gov. Gavin Newsom of California said that students there would have to be vaccinated to attend school as soon as next fall. Los Angeles, the nation’s second-largest school district, will institute a student vaccine mandate early next year.