The launch of vaccinations for New York City public school educators began on Monday with widespread confusion over just who can actually receive the shot first. While the city and the teachers union say priority will be given to in-person educators in 3K through fifth grade and in special education, there is no system in place to enforce that policy.
Slots to get the shot are already filling up this week with no clear explanation over just how in-person teachers will be prioritized.
Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza emailed teachers on Sunday telling them that in-person educators will be prioritized to get the shot that became available on Monday after Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed people in 1b, which include municipal workers such as teachers, to begin receiving it.
“If you are working remotely right now, please wait for further guidance on when to schedule your vaccination,” Carranza wrote.
But Lisa Pines, a 61-year-old educator for a District 75 school in Brooklyn, immediately received an appointment before the email was sent out after learning she was eligible through her daughter. After reading Carranza's email, Pines was confused over whether she was indeed allowed to get the shot, since she is a remote teacher. When she logged on to schedule a vaccination on the city's website on Saturday, she says she was not asked if she was an in-person teacher. And on Monday she received a text message from Notify NYC alerting teachers that they are eligible to receive the shot without delineating whether in-person teachers can go first.
"If they want to turn me away for that reason at the door, that's that is their prerogative," Pines whose appointment is Tuesday, said. "I don't want my colleagues who are risking their lives to teach in person [...] to think I'm jumping ahead of them. It was because I got the message it was okay to sign up."
Pines was further confused when she learned about the United Federation of Teachers' own vaccination program. Announced on Sunday by UFT president Michael Mulgrew, the program will also prioritize in-person teachers. The union sent an email to all members alerting them of the program, which duplicates the city's effort, though Mulgrew emphasized that such a program will offload any strains imposed on the city's efforts. But, much like the city's approach, there is no system of enforcement to prioritize appointments for in-person teachers.
The DOE confirmed it‘s relying on an honor system to determine if a teacher is teaching classes in-person.
Elementary and special education students who returned to the classroom beginning December 7th—following a two and a half week closure of public schools—are supposed to be prioritized over other teachers who are currently working remotely. This includes middle and high school teachers, whose classrooms remain closed, as well as teachers who've been allowed to stay home and teach remotely after getting approved for a Reasonable Accommodation Request. In-person teachers are not required to get the shot in order to stay in school.
Those who want the vaccine through the UFT's program will need to provide their contact information, which will be added to a list that is then distributed to providers that include NYU Langone and Northwell Health. The hospital groups will then reach out to them to set up an appointment.
"This afternoon, we already have commitments for slots with vaccines with all of the different healthcare organizations we are currently working with," Mulgrew said at a news conference Sunday outside Hillcrest High School, one of three vaccination sites that opened that day. "Our job is people [who] want the vaccine, we want to get them to a place that has the vaccine. No more waste, no more hearing about vaccines sitting in refrigerators and sitting on shelves when we know that people need this."
Mulgrew, however, was short on logistics, specifically how these systems will verify whether a teacher is working remotely or in person. A UFT spokesperson told Gothamist/WNYC that their program will ask teachers whether they are in-person or remote as part of the screening process. Their information will be sent to the provider to begin prioritization.
At a news conference on Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio reiterated his support in prioritizing in-person public school teachers, but offered no breakdown over just how that will work.