When Gov. Kathy Hochul issued her inaugural address as the head of New York State’s Executive Chamber Tuesday, she said one of her top priorities would be to get students back into the classroom safely. One of the ways to do that, she said, was to require vaccinations for all school personnel, with an option to test out weekly.
Hochul admitted cooperation at all levels of government would be needed to get that done. While the newly-sworn in governor says she can’t mandate vaccines herself, she is working with school boards and superintendents to figure out a plan. On Wednesday, she specified further:
“I don’t have the executive power to mandate vaccinations in schools, but I’ll be working closely to come to that conclusion by teaming up with our partners in the education community, our school superintendents, and our school boards,” Hochul told CBS This Morning. “This has to happen because this has gone on too long. Our children need to be back in school.”
Lisa Coppola, an attorney who concentrates on employment law, explained that typically such requirements would be mandated by a legislative body. “It certainly would be prudent to have the legislature, the Assembly, and the Senate of New York State, be focused on this issue.”
But while it could be called back to Albany, the state legislature is not in session. “The next place to look might be at the county level and county legislators,” Coppola added. “And then, at the school board or school district level.”
If the requirements are enacted, many school districts would have to make some last-minute changes. Coppola noted decisions at the school district level could require collective bargaining with unions.
Phil Rumore, the president of the Buffalo Teachers Federation, said he hopes Buffalo Public Schools (BPS) require the vaccine, with a test-out option, for personnel. “Teachers were overwhelmingly supportive of having vaccines and having teachers and staff vaccinated, but they wanted to make sure if you couldn’t get it—if you have medical reasons, etc.—that there would be testing that would be taken care of,” Rumore said.
On August 9, before Hochul took office and publicly started her push to get school personnel vaccinated, BPS Superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash wrote, “The district strongly urges and expects all staff to be fully vaccinated. Children are safer when the adults who care for them are vaccinated,” in a letter to the district community.
The Erie County Department of Health is “strongly recommending” the COVID-19 vaccination for eligible students and staff, but it is still unclear whether a mandate will come down in Buffalo. Meanwhile, the Rochester City School District requires employees to be vaccinated or tested weekly this fall.
“Ultimately, if there is a mandate of any kind like this, then it would have to be something that we’d negotiate,” Rumore said. “We’d work with the district to find out how we take care of the people that can’t take the vaccine.”
“We’ve been talking with the county about how do we do the testing weekly, we’ve been building protocols for that. We don’t have a plan in place, but we are anticipating that could happen. We’re preparing plans for that,” said Dr. Shawn Van Scoy, the Superintendent of the Gananda Central School District.
In Gananda, 75% of employees are currently vaccinated. As of now, there’s no vaccine mandate in place. “We know 25% of our staff have not been vaccinated for a variety of reasons, so I anticipate that there will still be people that if a mandate comes into place that will struggle with being vaccinated,” Van Scoy said. “But I do think that most will comply with the testing component of that because it’s not that invasive, particularly the new saliva tests that are out there.”
With barely two weeks or left remaining the start of the school year for most districts, officials say these last-minute changes can be a little stressful. “Is it difficult? Yes. Is it frustrating? A little bit. But not as bad as it was probably a year ago or two years ago when we weren’t used to this,” Van Scoy said. “We’ve gotten to know the new normal where we have to prepare that things can change.”
As cases rise among kids and many are unvaccinated, local school districts are already requiring masks among staff and students. “Based on the advice that we have received from local medical authorities, and what you see from the national and international, is that if we are practicing universal indoor masking, that is kind of our primary litigating factor and then the vaccinations would be the secondary if we are directed to do that,” said Aaron Johnson, the Superintendent of Schools at West Irondequoit.
Johnson says he knows not all families or students are in favor of masking, but he thinks it’s necessary with our current situation. “If we can drive the local transmission rates down, then let’s have a conversation about if we can loosen up the masking mandates, but I think it makes sense to take a more measured, cautious approach right now,” Johnson said.
As schools wait for any additional guidance before schools reopen, officials ask parents to be patient. Many arguments have broken out at local board of education meetings over masking and vaccine talks, and Johnson says he doesn’t think that’s helpful. “That’s really doing a disservice to our young people, to our children, right. I think we have to rally around our children, respect and understand one another and we have to work together from there.”
Johnson encourages people to focus on hope. “We think about where we were a year ago, we couldn’t even entertain this conversation, we couldn’t even conceptualize all of our students coming back,” Johnson said. “We are able to welcome all of our students back for full in-person learning, five days a week… that’s something to celebrate.”
On Wednesday, the School Administrators Association of New York State released a statement saying they support Gov. Hochul’s plan for universal masking and push for vaccination and testing requirements for staff.
“We hope that would be a statewide approach. Right now having our local school districts put in the position of making that a mandate, that’s very difficult for many communities,” said Dr. Cynthia Gallagher, the Director of Government Relations for the School Administrators Association of New York State.
Gov. Hochul said she plans to release more school guidance in the coming days.
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