By Cyril Josh Barker
Update from the Associated Press: The Supreme Court axed the plea from a group of teachers who asked for an emergency injunction blocking implementation of New York City’s COVID-19 vaccine mandate for public schools staff.
Several teachers and school staffers could be out of a job if they don’t get at least the first jab of the COVID-19 vaccine. Like other sectors with vaccine mandates, the controversy is a rollercoaster, with the courts, city officials, and workers along for the wild ride.
This week, the saga took another turn when the federal appeals court blocked the city’s vaccine mandate for teachers followed by the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Manhattan dismissing the temporary hold. As of Wednesday, all city public school teachers and staff must be vaccinated by Friday, Oct. 1.
“Vaccinations are our strongest tool in the fight against COVID-19—this ruling is on the right side of the law and will protect our students and staff,” the city’s Department of Education said in a statement.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said this week that 87% of public school employees have at least one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine. However, a small percentage of education workers unvaccinated amounts to thousands of people in the workforce. Those who don’t comply with the vaccine mandate could face being out of the job by Monday.
A shortage in teaching staff will bring in substitutes. De Blasio said the city is ready and has them on standby if necessary and they could be hired permanently in some cases.
“A lot of those substitutes are people who are absolutely ready, willing, and able to become permanent teachers,” de Blasio said. “Who are very experienced, who are high quality. They’re ready. So, the point here is we are going to give folks a chance in the short term but in the long term, anyone who’s not ready to be vaccinated on an ongoing basis, of course they’re ultimately going to get replaced. And there’s thousands and thousands of great educators who want those jobs.”
After the court’s latest dismissal, ten DOE plaintiffs filed another lawsuit against de Blasio in federal court over his forced vaccination mandate. Kane v. De Blasio is the third lawsuit filed against the city’s vaccine mandate for the city’s educators with a major focus on the city’s exemption process.
In an interview with the AmNews, 14-year DOE special education teacher Michael Kane, who is leading the lawsuit, said he believes unvaccinated teachers might get relief from a judge.
“Our attorneys believe that this speaks to the knowledge in the legal community that this is an illegal mandate,” Kane said. “They’re looking for the correct legal argument. The legal arguments brought so far were very broad. Our legal argument is much more narrow. We’re bringing a legal argument about the fraudulent exemption process, right, that they had for religious exemptions and for medical exemptions.”
Kane said school staffers’ reasons for not getting the COVID-19 vaccine include medical, religious and “sincere belief” reasons. He says if the deadline stays and teachers are out of work on Monday, there will be peaceful protests in the streets.
“Everyone in my lawsuit has extremely firm conviction on this that forcing us to inject a product that is not even one year old, into our muscle tissues as a condition of employment is insanity,” Kane said. “Where are we going to draw the line?”
As far as the schools are concerned, Kane said the DOE could face a tough time if hundreds of teachers can’t come to work and wouldn’t be surprised if the situation causes the DOE to repeal the mandate. He believes the majority of schools are COVID safe but each facility has its own environment. Several schools in the city are dealing with overcrowding.
“Unvaccinated teachers are not a danger to the schools that they work in,” Kane said. “We have implemented multiple layers of mitigation to make sure the schools are safe. To say that teachers are less safe than those that are vaccinated defies the science.”
Civil rights attorney Norman Siegel said the teachers filing the lawsuit might not get their way due the fact that they do in fact pose a public health risk by not being vaccinated. He said that because COVID-19 is so contagious they are affecting other people’s right to survive.
“The issue here is the balancing of the individual right to resist the vaccine versus the public health risk,” Siegel stated. “I think the message here is that when the government decides to do a vaccine mandate, given the circumstances of where we are COVID with the Delta variant, that that will be upheld legally.”
Siegel adds that teachers who aren’t vaccinated should explore the option of collective bargaining with their union. An agreement could placate teachers’ suspicion until the COVID-19 pandemic is over or until they get vaccinated. Such an agreement could be helpful for those with medical or religious exemptions.
United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew and Counsel of School Supervisors and Administrators President Mark Cannizzaro are warning de Blasio about a potential staff shortage if the vaccine mandate goes forward. Mulgrew said safety could be an issue because of the shortage of officers in schools.
“According to our recent survey of UFT chapter leaders, only about one-third believe that as of now their schools can open without disruption, given the potential shortage of unvaccinated personnel, including school aides and security personnel,” Mulgrew said. “The city has a lot of work before it to ensure that enough vaccinated staff will be available by the new deadline.”
The in-person reopening went smoothly for about two weeks, Cannizzaro told the AmNews, until school and classroom closures and lawsuits over the employee vaccine mandates gummed up the works.
Cannizzaro, and American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, said that an arbitrary date for school employees to get vaccinated by, whether they believe in it or not, should have been well before the school year started so they had enough time to anticipate pushback.
Cannizzaro said that the pause from the court order is a “good thing” and has allowed for more time to figure out staffing issues. “It’s an opportunity for consistency,” he said.
Polling of AFT members reveals that 90% are vaccinated and fully. Two in three K-12 members support vaccine mandates. Weingarten said the AFT is trying to reach unvaccinated members by connection them with “trusted messengers” to provide information on the vaccines.
“This poll is proof positive that the hard work educators have been doing for months to get vaccinated, promote the shot and work with employers on vaccine requirements has paid dividends,” she said. “Educators know that safety was the pathway back to in-person learning and is the key to staying back—a combination of vaccines, masking, ventilation, physical distancing and planning for an outbreak.”
With additional reporting by Ariama C. Long, Report for America Corps Member, Amsterdam News Staff