Education

Defiance, a scramble for staff ahead of pre-K staff vaccination mandate

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One preschool director on the Upper West Side may have to combine classrooms to fill in for unvaccinated teachers. Another in Harlem anticipates being down a few staffers, and hasn’t heard whether substitutes will come.

Yet another in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn plans to keep her teachers in the classroom — vaccinated or not. With the majority of her staff refusing the shots, the only other alternative would be to close, said Marina Kolmanovsky, owner of Buratino International Day Care.

“We will come back to work. And those who are not vaccinated will wait until the DOE or DOH shut us down,” she said, referring to the Department of Education and Department of Health and Mental Hygiene. “Who’s going to watch the kids?”

Preschool and day care centers across New York City are scrambling for Tuesday morning, when a mandate kicks in that requires their staff to be vaccinated against COVID. The teachers and principals unions are warning of a shortage of safety agents, cafeteria workers, and, at some schools, dozens of teachers. They’ve called on the city to delay.

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But the city’s patchwork system of preschool and child care centers makes the requirement even more difficult for these centers to implement. Staffing and budgets have always been tight. With just hours to go until the mandate kicks in, key details for how it will be implemented have yet to be decided. There is confusion about who it even applies to.

And there are no firm figures for how many staffers are vaccinated, and how many might be missing on Tuesday morning.

“Based on our conversations, the majority of center-based staff are vaccinated. Some centers are 100%. Some are in the 80% range. But cumulatively across the 1,200 or so centers, the impact is going to be felt,” said Tara Gardner, director of the Day Care Council of New York, which represents about 200 nonprofit childcare and pre-kindergarten centers. “The staffing implications could be dire.”

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The education department on Friday urged providers to write to them if they anticipate services for families will be disrupted, promising to help with a “rapid response” plan.

Most children enrolled in the city’s free pre-K programs for 3- and 4-year-olds attend centers that receive public money through contracts with the city, but are privately run. Some are unionized, but most are not. That leaves a tangle of rules and players to figure out how to implement the mandate, which was announced on Sept. 9.

Confusion reigns. District Council 37, which represents teachers and other staff at the sites, told its members in a blog post and email that the mandate doesn’t cover anyone not in an education department program — arguing instead that federal regulations apply, which allow teachers to submit to regular coronavirus testing rather than get vaccinated.

By Friday, the union changed course and said that only some Head Start programs, which receive federal funding to care for children from low-income families, are exempt from the city mandate.

A spokesperson for the education department, meanwhile, was unequivocal that contracted child care and pre-K centers are covered under the requirement. Operators on Friday afternoon received an alert from the city that echoed that position.

Contracted child care and preschool centers were initially carved out of the city’s vaccination mandate for teachers, only for Mayor Bill de Blasio to reverse that decision about three weeks later.

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That left less time for teachers to comply with the mandate, and for negotiations about who should get exemptions and accommodations due to medical or religious issues, how to handle separations for staff who refuse the shots, and to plan for potential shortages.

On Thursday afternoon, Gardner said negotiations were ongoing. Part of the challenge is figuring out what an accommodation would look like for a teacher at a small center. The education department has worked out an arrangement to redeploy those with accommodations to a setting outside the classroom. But for independent providers, there are no central offices where they can send their staffers who can’t safely be in schools, and centers have been told they can only operate remotely in the event of bad weather.

“That still needs to be worked out with the unions,” Gardner said. “It’s a huge deal.”

She noted that many centers already operate on slim margins and struggle to find staff, who can often make more money elsewhere. Unlike education department schools, there is no central pool of subs. Operators have to find their own fill-ins and every additional expense is a strain on their budget.

On Friday, the education department told operators that the city will amend contracts to help pay for additional staffing costs and pledged to provide targeted help to centers that need more hands on deck.

George Penaherrera, director of East Calvary Day Care in Harlem, said all but one or two staffers at his center are vaccinated. But it will still be hard to fill in for them. He was already short a teacher, who went on medical leave because they were at high risk for complications if they get sick with COVID.

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The education department sent a survey to directors to learn about their staffing needs. Penaherrera said he alerted the department that he needs two subs — and now will have to wait and see if they arrive. It’s typically not easy to find subs, he said, because his program runs for 10 hours instead of just the regular school day.

“It’s very hard for me to say right now how I’m going to patch up this hole that I’m in,” he said.

Most sites are not unionized. But among those that are, District Council 37 could not say how many of its teachers are vaccinated. Neither could the education department. Without that data, it could be hard to enforce the mandate, though contractors have been asked to fill out a survey affirming that they are in compliance.

Kolmanovsky, the Brighton Beach daycare owner, said only one of her nine staff members is vaccinated. With jobs potentially on the line, a second staffer has indicated they may get the shot this weekend. But others are adamant they will not, saying they’re concerned about long-term health effects. (The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have affirmed the shots are safe and effective.)

Meanwhile, Kolmanovsky said she knows her families depend on her center. So she plans to stay open.

“Does DOE want me to dismiss those kids? To send them home?” she said. “These are working parents who don’t have an option to stay home.”

Readers: We want to hear about how the vaccination mandate is affecting you. Write to us about your experiences at [email protected]

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