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NYC expands COVID vaccine mandate to pre-K teachers, after-school workers

A medical worker prepares a dose of a COVID vaccine, wearing full protective gear.
New York City will require staffers who work in city-contracted preschools, day cares, and after-school programs to be vaccinated against COVID.
Michael Appleton / Mayoral Photography Office

Preschool and daycare workers, as well as after-school staff, will be required to get vaccinated, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced Thursday.

The new mandate includes 24,000 employees initially left out of the city’s requirement that all education department staff need to be vaccinated. Just like education department staff, preschool, day care, and after-school workers who contract with the city will need to receive their first dose by Sept. 27.

Other details of the mandate, including what will happen to employees who refuse the shots, still need to be worked out. Classes in New York City are set to begin Monday. Without an option to learn remotely, the nation’s largest school district will reopen to about 1 million students.

City officials also announced on Thursday efforts to step up vaccinations among school children. De Blasio said that vaccinations will be offered at more than 700 campuses when classes kick off next week. That includes every school serving students ages 12 and up, who are eligible for the shots.

The mayor stopped short of endorsing a vaccine requirement for children, even as Los Angeles, the second largest school district in the country, seems poised to do so. New York Gov. Kathy Hochul said this week that a mandate for students is “certainly an option,” especially if COVID rates rise.

“We just don’t think that’s the right thing to do,” de Blasio said. “The most important thing right now is getting kids back in school. [If] there’s a family that’s not yet ready, I don’t want that family kept out of school. I want them in school.”

Given that young children are still ineligible for the vaccine, many educators and families were concerned about the lack of mandate to get the shots in the early childhood sector.

The new rule now includes educators who work in public preschool programs that contract with the city but are run by independent providers. Those programs make up a majority of seats in the city’s free Pre-K for All and 3-K programs, which serve 3- and 4-year olds.

It remains to be seen what will happen to contracted employees who refuse to be vaccinated, whether the city will grant religious or medical exemptions, and, if so, what the process will be for determining those exemptions.

Tara Gardner, executive director of the Day Care Council of New York, which represents the boards of more than 200 publicly contracted child care providers, signaled support for the mandate, even while those details remain unsettled.

“Young children that our Day Care Council members serve cannot be vaccinated, so it’s even more important that the adults who interact with them are protected through vaccination,” she said at a press conference. “There will certainly be questions about the implementation of the mandate, and the Day Care Council will work collaboratively… to address issues that staff members face and provide clarity on protocols.”

Many of the same thorny issues are also still being worked out with the United Federation of Teachers, which represents some 80,000 education department teachers covered by the vaccine mandate. The union recently filed a complaint, which is currently in arbitration, over how to implement the requirement.

One group of employees who work with students but don’t need to be vaccinated: school bus drivers. The education department said Thursday that there is no mandate for them. Recently released state guidelines call for school bus drivers to be vaccinated or submit to weekly testing. In New York City, some of the most vulnerable children rely on school buses to attend special education programs.

City officials have emphasized vaccines as the most important layer of defense against COVID as schools reopen amid the highly transmissible delta variant.

But layering other mitigations are also crucial, health officials say, and city schools are also improving ventilation, employing two air purifiers in every classroom, mandating masks, and following three feet of social distancing “where possible,” as federal guidelines suggest. Additionally, schools are planning to conduct COVID tests for 10% of unvaccinated people in buildings twice a month, though students must opt-in to testing. Students will also be required to quarantine in certain cases when positive cases arise.

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