Mandated Shots For Teachers?

Even as teachers get COVID-19 shots, schools may have to slow expectations for change

Source Observer Dispatch Sophie GrosserodeGary SternKatelyn CorderoRockland/Westchester Journal News0:290:33

When teachers and school staff became eligible Monday for the COVID-19 vaccine, the educational community rejoiced. But the first shots in the arms of educators also raised complex questions about when vaccinations might help schools normalize the way they can operate.

“There seems to be a lot of enthusiasm to get in line, but the line is quite long,” Harrison Superintendent Lou Wool said.

Community expectations may also need to be tempered with patience, he said.

People with appointments for the COVID-19 vaccine wait on line at the Westchester County Center, one of the three mass COVID-19 vaccination sites that opened in New York state today, Jan. 13, 2021 in White Plains.

“I have gotten some emails from parents who believe that once a teacher is vaccinated that will give us the flexibility to bring all students back to in person learning, and I wish it were that simple,” Wool said.

For now, many teachers and other members of group 1B who became eligible Monday are focused on simply getting appointments. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence — appointments booking out until April, lines stretching out the door of vaccine distribution sites — that many people in this group will not get their first shots for months and their second shot until a month after that.

Still, as the vaccine rollout begins, however inconsistently, school leaders across the state are wondering how they can track vaccination trends and know when enough people have been vaccinated in a school to do things differently, said Kevin Casey, executive director of the School Administrators Association of New York State.

“Things get complicated quickly,” Casey said. “The lack of clarity is always frustrating.” 

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One thing that seems clear is that it will probably will not be an option for school districts to mandate the shot, said Jay Worona, deputy executive director and general counsel for the New York State School Boards Association. 

“I think it would have to come from either an executive order of the governor or an act of the state Legislature,” he said. 

It is likely premature for the state to consider such questions when there are not enough doses for all who want them, Worona said.

If individual school districts wanted to pursue a vaccine mandate, they would have to do so through collective bargaining with their labor unions, short of an executive order from Cuomo, Case said.

Because the focus right now is on getting through the rollout, it’s too soon to address the finer questions from a practical standpoint, said Sara Visingard, a partner with the Harris Beach law firm and president of the New York State Association of School Attorneys.

She said that she and other school attorneys from throughout the state will be “considering these issues in due time, taking into account pertinent EEOC guidance and the health and safety of students and staff, and working cooperatively with labor organizations, as may be warranted.” 

COVID-19 vaccine vials.

Tracking staff vaccinations

Schools will have to figure out who on staff has been vaccinated based on information that staffers volunteer. The federal Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, known as HIPAA, protects patient privacy rights.

“We’ll probably be able to ask individuals to let us know,” White Plains Superintendent Joe Ricca said. “If they’re comfortable letting us know, we’ll be able to get a sense of the adults who have been vaccinated. Of course, there are always HIPAA considerations….But we will try to capture as much information as we can.”

It will come down to what teachers and other choose to reveal, Ricca said. Parents, for instance, won’t be able to find out if their child’s teacher is immunized unless the teacher chooses to share that information, just like with a flu shot.

New York State United Teachers is advocating for all teachers to get vaccinated if they choose to do so, spokesperson Matt Hamilton said.

“We want to make sure those who are seeking the vaccine can get it,” Hamilton said. “Our work is continuing with the state and counties to iron out the wrinkles with the vaccine rollout so we can do whatever we can to help with this process.”

Anecdotally, many school leaders say their staff have shown a high level of interest in getting the vaccine. Hyde Park Superintendent Aviva Kafka said the “vast majority” of surveyed staff indicated they wanted it, and Pawling Superintendent Kim Fontana said roughly 95% of her staff showed an interest.

Wool said he wasn’t aware of any employees who don’t want the vaccine.

“Most of the teachers that I’ve spoken with, and my employees, secretaries, custodial staff, they’re all anxious to get the vaccination,” he said.

In terms of tracking staff vaccinations, Wool said his district is consulting with its attorneys, but it is likely “a personal decision” for employees to disclose vaccination information.

Casey said he thinks it will become clear in time when a significant percentage of a school’s staff has been vaccinated.

“Even though we won’t have a spreadsheet that shows who is vaccinated and who is not, you will reach a critical mass in a school that people will be aware of,” he said.

Kelley Dixon, 78, a resident at the Hebrew Home at Riverdale in the Bronx, N.Y. gets a COVID-19 vaccine Dec. 21, 2020. Dixon was the first resident at the nursing home to receive the vaccine. The home received enough doses of the Pfizer vaccine to vaccinate all 600 of its residents, which it plans to do over the next three days.

What comes next?

While working with their attorneys on legal questions, district leaders may also have to work to temper community expectations about what the vaccine will mean, at least over the next month or two. 

They may have to remind parents that the vaccination process will be slow, especially with a month between the first and second shots. And districts will need guidance from health experts.

Wool said he hasn’t received a definitive answer on what percentage of school staff would have to be vaccinated to keep everyone safe, but his goal is to get “as close to 100% as possible.”

Ricca said that it’s important for families to remember that even as vaccinations climb, key decisions about relaxing rules like classroom capacity rest with the state, not individual districts.

“That is a data point that will come from the state Health Department,” he said. “We’re still operating under executive order, so we just have to go through this process, get folks vaccinated, and keep moving in the right direction.”

Sophie Grosserode covers education. Click here for her latest stories. Follow her on Twitter @sdgrosserode.RecommendedCOVID-19: Oneida County spending $2.6 million for vaccination staffNEWSMore Local StoriesUtica man faces weapon charges following Brinckerhoff Ave traffic stopNEWSBreaking my silence on the local BLM movementNEWSDeath notices for January 10, 2021NEWSU.S. Supreme Court tosses conviction in NFL star Will Smith’s deathNEWSMore Local StoriesMansion built on the east side of Genesee StreetNEWSTips for deep cleaning the bathroomNEWSRome NY Walmart reopens after closing for ‘cleaning, sanitizing’NEWSWith COVID-19 numbers up, should schools remain open for classes?NEWSUtica man speaks about being detained at U.S. CapitolNEWSNY-22: Schedule laid out for 2 weeks of Brindisi-Tenney court hearingsNEWSMore Local StoriesCOVID: Rome hospital vaccinates 307 people, including first respondersNEWSUtica traffic stop leads to charges for 19-year-old manNEWSOne of Oneida County’s 2019 Top Ten Most Wanted arrestedNEWSThere’s a new town in Herkimer CountyNEWSMore Local StoriesBrindisi Tenney NY22: 2,400 voter registration forms not processedNEWS1958 murder at Madison County gas station remains unsolvedNEWSUtica man faces felony weapon chargesNEWSDeath notices for Jan. 7, 2021NEWSMore StoriesCOVID-19: Oneida County spending $2.6 million for vaccination staffUtica man faces weapon charges following Brinckerhoff Ave traffic stopBreaking my silence on the local BLM movement