STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Throughout the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, Heather Plantamura has been teaching at her Staten Island middle school — working both remotely and in-person — and ensuring her students continued to learn during the tumultuous time. But she may not be able to return to her classroom later this week, as New York City is requiring every public school employee to receive at least one dose of the coronavirus (COVID-19) vaccine.
“My heart is breaking,” the teacher said, who has been working for the city Department of Education (DOE) since 1993. “I have always loved my students…My heart hurts way worse for colleagues, several of them were just like, ‘I’ll go get the vaccine.’”
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in August that every DOE employee will need to get the COVID-19 vaccine this school year. It includes teachers, principals, custodians, administrative staff, food service workers, school safety agents, central office staff, those working at charter schools, and pre-K teachers working in community-based organizations contracted with the DOE.
The initial deadline for employees to get the jab was Monday.
However, a temporary injunction was placed on the mandate on Friday evening. It was placed following a federal lawsuit filed by a group of New York City teachers seeking to block the requirement, and will be heard by a three-member panel of the United States Court of Appeals on Wednesday, Sept. 29.
The temporary injunction will remain in place until the appeal has been decided, which would occur as early as the Wednesday hearing. While the temporary injunction remains in place, the DOE has stressed that its current “vax-or-test” mandate remains in effect and it is seeking “speedy resolution by the Circuit Court next week.”
‘I NEVER TOOK A DAY’
“Why are we who have been working for the last year and a half non-stop — I never took a day. I live in New Jersey. I came every single day to Staten Island, and I taught remote and in-person,” she said, about being required to get the vaccine or lose her job. “I was teaching all of my school kids with love, with a smile on my face. Not once did I show anything when my husband’s grandmother died. Nothing. I went back to work. Even now, most likely knowing I was going to be ripped from my students…”
Plantamura said she told some of her students that she may not be teaching them for the rest of the school year. One student in particular, she explained, was so upset by the news that she wrote a letter to the mayor and chancellor saying that she would “lose one of the best teachers.”
In response to the mandate, Plantamura also wrote her own letter, emailed to both the mayor and Chancellor Meisha Ross Porter, urging them to reconsider.
“I have not missed a single day, whether we were in-person or remote. I have loved teaching and all of my students. They were very sad to hear that I no longer will be with them Tuesday because of the mandate,” she said, in a letter emailed to the mayor and chancellor. “…So many students who we just got acquainted with, comfortable, establishing routines with us, will be shaken up…Let us, the unvaccinated, remain where we most want to be — our classrooms with our students. Not easily replaced by vaccinated substitutes, who most likely do not encompass our passion, dedication, love, and all good things towards our students.”
And as the pandemic continues, she noted many families have still called for a remote-only option — which would allow teachers like herself to staff those remote-only teaching positions.
“We’re really creating a situation that is unnecessary,” she told the Advance/SILive.com. “If you don’t want me in the building — how many parents want remote learning right now. So make people in my shoes go remote. You don’t want me in the building, I want to teach. I want to teach in the building, but to tell me you can’t make an accommodation when all last year I just went with the flow of whatever they gave me. It just doesn’t make any sense. It seems so illogical. There’s no rhyme or reason to the decisions being made.”
Plantamura explained she has several reasons for not receiving the coronavirus vaccine. She’s experienced rare allergic reactions to medications in the past, that could also occur if she got the shot. She also applied for a religious exemption, but was denied by the city, she said.
She also believes people should have the freedom to choose if they want to get the vaccine or not.
The mayor said last week that the city has seen “very few” medical and religious exemption applications so far but did not provide an exact number of how many have been received.
Initially, the city refused to negotiate exemptions with the United Federation of Teachers (UFT) union, who sought mediation from the state. An independent arbitrator ultimately ruled that employees were able to apply for medical and religious exemptions.
In addition, the arbitrator ruled that other staffers reluctant to take the vaccine must be offered either an unpaid leave that maintains their health coverage or a severance package.
The unpaid leaves will last until September 2022, according to the arbitrator ruling. While staff taking the unpaid leave will have their salaries withheld, the city will continue their medical insurance coverage.
“Such teachers will be returned to their jobs and the payroll if and when they decide to be vaccinated. If they have not been vaccinated by the end of that leave, the system will assume they have resigned,” said the UFT in a press release.
Staff who decline to accept an unpaid leave must be offered a severance package that would include payment for unused sick days, along with health insurance until the end of the school year, the ruling says. They would also be entitled to apply to return to city schools in the future.
Unvaccinated teachers who refuse all options will be subject to the disciplinary process.
STAFF SHORTAGES A CONCERN
The DOE has said more than 82% of its employees have been vaccinated and it continues to urge all employees to get their shot by Monday, when the original mandate was to go into effect.
Officials have repeatedly said that New York City public schools will be adequately staffed for the 2021-2022 school year despite the mandate.
“We feel confident that we will be staffed,” said Porter during a press briefing on Sept. 20. “Our teachers have been our greatest heroes throughout this pandemic and showed up in so many amazing ways, and this is the next way to get our babies back in class and to keep them protected and safe.”
During a Thursday press conference, Mayor Bill de Blasio showed little concern for the issue, claiming that the city has ample resources to address any staffing shortages.
“Any situation where additional staffing is needed, we have staff that can be deployed very quickly to wherever they’re needed in the city,” de Blasio told reporters. “The message for parents is that you’re going to have buildings with only vaccinated adults in them.”
The mayor said the city has “thousands and thousands of vaccinated experienced substitute teachers” ready to fill-in for any unvaccinated teachers placed on leave.
Schools are expected to receive additional funding on Monday to address any staffing shortages, according to an email from the Office of the Chief Operating Officer obtained by Chalkbeat.
Some Staten Island schools could be hit particularly hard next week by the implementation of the vaccine mandate, with Councilman Joseph Borelli (R-South Shore) claiming that numerous borough schools are set to lose dozens of teachers.
Plantamura said that her school is struggling to find staff for once the mandate is in effect.
In addition to the potential teacher shortage, schools will also have to fill numerous other staffing positions, with nearly 20,000 other DOE employees remaining unvaccinated, according to city data. To help address this issue, the city has informed staff members from NYC Schools’ central offices that they may be deployed at schools throughout the five boroughs to help mitigate any staff shortages, according to Chalkbeat.
Staten Island teachers and other school staff are planning to fight back against the mandate, with several rallies planned at public schools across the borough Monday, including Tottenville High School, Huguenot; Paulo Intermediate School (I.S. 75), Huguenot; PS 56, Rossville; PS 62, Pleasant Plains; PS 23, Richmond; and PS 42, Eltingville.