Controversy Continues Over Vaccine Mandate for Public School Workers



M.S. 255 Salk School of Science is one of the 45 public schools located in Midtown.  Photo by Marta Campabadal

New York City public school employees had until October 1 to get their COVID-19 vaccine. Those who did not comply or receive a religious or medical exemption were removed from the payroll and automatically placed on unpaid leave, with the ability to keep their health benefits but not the option to look for another job. 

“I did not want to leave the classroom. I was forced out,” said Michellene Barrett, a school teacher in Brooklyn who chose not to get the vaccine for religious reasons, but her exemption was denied.

Out of 167,000 workers in the Department of Education, Barrett is one of the 6,680 unvaccinated employees. Although she and thousands of others are temporarily out of a job, Mayor Bill de Blasio is standing firm on his position. He announced on October 7 that 95% of full-time employees had received at least one shot. These numbers are even higher now, as the DOE has reported there are around 3,400 newly vaccinated workers since the mandate went into effect.

“I believe that God gives us free will, and I do not understand why the government is not doing that as well,” said Barrett, adding that after eight years of working for the city’s educational system, she’s not allowed to enter any DOE buildings. “We are now considered a threat to safety.”

Michellene Barrett, a school teacher in Brooklyn, is against the vaccine mandate. Photo by Marta Campabadal

Before the mandate, school workers had to either submit to weekly COVID-19 testing or show proof of vaccination. Now employees like Barrett, who are on unpaid leave, can’t look for another job, per DOE guidelines. But this doesn’t mean an end to their careers with the Department of Education. If the employees get vaccinated, they can go back to their positions anytime during the school year and no later than two weeks after submitting a vaccination record to the DOE. Until then, temporary hires perform their jobs.

For employees who refuse the vaccine, resignation with severance is the alternative with the ability to look for another job and keep medical coverage until September 5, 2022. 

But some parents are worried about how the situation might affect their children. 

Benjamin Morden is the father of three daughters enrolled in New York City public schools, who are excited to be back in person, after a year and a half of remote learning, he said.

“I obviously prefer not to have a substitute. But I think overall, the most important thing is to have schools open up again,” said Morden, who has two children at M.S. 255 Salk School of Science in Midtown.

Vaccine signage on the windows of the M.S. 255 Salk School of Science in Midtown. Photo by Marta Campabadal

Morden said he has not been informed of any substitutions in his daughter’s classes. “I think that the majority of teachers and staff want to be in school and want to teach. So it’s unfortunate there have been tensions, even though I can understand hesitancy on a completely novel vaccine.”

Rhonda Perry, the principal of M.S. 255 Salk School of Science, and several teachers who are vaccinated did not respond to questions, but directed the Midtown Gazette to the teacher’s union for comments on the vaccine mandate. The United Federation of Teachers was not available for an interview but referred to its website for the union’s position. According to a press release, UFT supports the mandate as long as exemptions are given, but the union is concerned about a possible labor shortage as schools search for substitutes. In the 45 public schools located in Midtown, there are currently 14 schools with COVID-19 cases, according to the DOE’s Daily Covid Case Map, which reports any positive cases, quarantines, and if any classrooms are closed because of exposure. 

Mona Davids, the founder of the New York City Parents Union, is more concerned about school safety agents being replaced. “The Department of Education can find substitute teachers and paraprofessionals, but as the NYPD commissioner said when it comes to school safety agents, they are no substitutes,” she said. 

Quiann Simpkins, a school safety agent from Coney Island, said that agents were not available for comment, but responded in a text message that “everyone is disgruntled and morale is really low.”

Despite efforts from anti-vaxxers, there is legal precedent for vaccine mandates. “The U.S. Constitution has long been understood to permit states and cities to impose vaccine mandates,” said Kate E. Andrias, a professor at Columbia Law School. “Subsequent case law and statutes, however, make clear that religious and disability accommodations are necessary.”

Education advocates are also taking note of how large schools districts like New York City are handling COVID-19.

Bree Dusseault is the principal researcher at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a Seattle-based nonpartisan research group that looks at how urban districts have responded to the pandemic since the shutdown in March 2020. 

“New York is one of 14 districts in the 100 that we are tracking that is requiring all staff to get vaccinated. Another 25 are requiring at least staff either to get vaccinated or that they do optional testing. And that means that New York is in a minority,” said Dusseault.

But some school workers are fighting back against the mandate, like NY Teachers for Choice, an organization formed by a group of teachers who oppose medical mandates. According to its website, the group requested an injunction on October 12 to block the vaccine mandate, but was denied and planning to appeal. NY Teachers for Choice did not respond to requests for comment. 

Barrett, who is also a children’s author, plans to earn money by selling books while she is on unpaid leave. “I’m having hope,” she said. “I am someone with a religious background, and I do believe in having faith and that things will work out for me.”