Will City Worker Vaccination Policy Ease Parents’ Concerns About Return to Classrooms?

New York City parents are responding to the new vaccine and testing requirements for public school staff with a mix of relief and skepticism.

Mayor de Blasio announced Monday that, by the first day of school on September 13th, all municipal workers have to show proof of vaccination or get tested for COVID-19 every week. The mandate covers all school-based staff, including teachers, administrators, paraprofessionals, cafeteria workers, and custodians, among others.

“I feel it’s finally a step in the right direction,” said parent Ruthie Vishlitsky in Brooklyn.

Vishlitsky kept her daughter home last year instead of sending her to pre-k because of the coronavirus. She is planning to send her to kindergarten in September, but is increasingly worried about the delta variant.

“I wish New York City and other employers would start to be more assertive about vaccination requirements, masking and enforcement,” she said.

On Monday, Mayor de Blasio also announced there would be more enforcement of mask-wearing for unvaccinated municipal workers indoors starting next week, although it was not immediately clear how that enforcement would work.

So far, city officials have said masks will be required for all public school staff and students.

The public schools are set to reopen fully this fall with no remote option. De Blasio said he purposefully selected the first day of classes for the vaccination deadline, calling the date pivotal in the city’s recovery.

But some parents said they still don’t feel safe enough sending their kids back to school buildings. A little more than a dozen parents rallied outside the teachers union headquarters on Monday. The Bronx Parent Leaders Advocacy Group has been calling for a remote option this fall.

“You can say you’re going to do a million things, but if I don’t trust you’re going to do it, it doesn’t matter,” said Bronx parent Farah Despeignes. She said she’s also worried about overcrowding and ventilation in schools.

More than 60 percent of city public school students continued to learn remotely through June, and the city has promised ongoing outreach to help them feel comfortable coming back.

Other parents raised concerns that increased testing could lead to more classroom or even school closures. The current policy calls for all unvaccinated individuals in classrooms to quarantine for 10 days when there’s a positive case. Out of about 12,000 summer school classrooms, more than 140 are currently listed as closed. The Centers for Disease Control has said students in a classroom should not be considered close contacts who need to quarantine if they were wearing masks and social distancing. The test positivity rate within schools remains very low.

The United Federation of Teachers released a statement supporting the new vaccination rules. “This approach puts the emphasis on vaccination but still allows for personal choice and provides additional safeguards through regular testing,” the statement said.

But Henry Garrido, president of the union DC37, which represents cafeteria workers and school aides, said the union wants to negotiate the details of the plan. “While we encourage everyone to get vaccinated and support measures to ensure our members’ health and wellbeing, weekly testing is clearly subject to mandatory bargaining,” he said in a statement.

Last Friday, the education department said 60 percent of school staff have had at least one dose, although the number may be substantially higher because it does not count those who live or were vaccinated outside New York City.