New York City students who are under the age of five will need to continue wearing masks in class, even if the school mask mandate is lifted by Mayor Eric Adams next week, as those kids are not currently eligible for COVID vaccines, a City Hall official said Thursday.
The Department of Education will continue to offer masks on campuses for students, teachers and staff, said Amaris Cockfield, a spokesperson for the mayor. It was not immediately clear if unvaccinated students over the age of five will be required to wear masks at school.
In anticipation of Adams lifting the public school system’s mask mandate on March 7th, Comptroller Brad Lander and Public Advocate Jumaane Williams sent to City Hall a letter Wednesday urging the city to require students to be vaccinated for COVID by the next school year and offer opt-in masked classes.
Their call to require COVID vaccinations for all eligible students by the beginning of the 2022-2023 school year follows the lead of the Washington D.C. and Los Angeles school systems (though those systems have faced various delays and legal challenges to their proposed mandates).
“It makes pretty clear sense that for next fall, COVID vaccination should be required, just like meningitis vaccination is required,” Lander told Gothamist. “If we knew that now, that would help us have confidence vaccination rates will go up in places where they're really low, and we would be taking the steps necessary to keep people safe.”
Williams said “all the science says that it's beneficial, that it is helpful,” and added there would be the same medical exemptions as available for other required vaccinations.
“We want to make sure that there are legitimate exemption options, but I think it should be treated like any other vaccination that is already mandated,” Williams told Gothamist.
The mayor has said he would consider a vaccine mandate for students 12 and older once the vaccine is fully approved by the FDA, since the shots for that age group are currently under emergency authorization. But vaccination uptake has been inconsistent among the city’s schoolkids.
The Department of Education said systemwide, 51.6% of eligible New York City students were fully vaccinated as of February 22nd.
DOE spokesman Nathaniel Styer said “in the coming days” the department will launch a campaign targeting school communities with lower vaccination rates. He did not immediately respond to an inquiry about requiring the COVID vaccine for students for the next school year.
DOE employees were required to be vaccinated under former Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration.
If the mask mandate is lifted next week as expected, Williams and Lander say the school system needs to find a way to quickly offer “an opt-in approach for teachers and students who wish to remain in all masked classrooms.”
When asked how this alternate structure would work, Lander said the DOE could survey each school community to determine if students and teachers wanted to be in a masked setting.
“I think it'd be very different in different schools. But in those places where some meaningful number of people would like to stay in a masked classroom, it'd be great if we could offer it,” Lander said. “We should try to support principals who would want to do it.”
The city also needs to focus on upgrading ventilation in school buildings, Williams said, and criticized the de Blasio administration for not prioritizing air quality in the school system’s 1,800 buildings.
“I think the last administration let this lapse for too long,” Williams said. “I'm sure it's a big project. But we have to get started, because ventilation is important in schools and air quality is important.”
Lander and Williams urged the DOE to release the data the city collected on airflow and on airborne pollutants within classrooms and to commit to equipping each classroom with indoor air quality sensors that can dispense real-time measurements.
The officials also requested that the DOE continues to conduct in-school COVID testing and continue to provide masks on campuses even after the mandate is lifted.
Williams said he personally was wary that Adams is trying to lift too many restrictions simultaneously – in addition to lifting the school mask mandate on March 7th, Adams announced that the Key to NYC policy requiring customers of restaurants, gyms and entertainment venues to be vaccinated will also be lifted the same day.
“Those two things are concerning to me. I think you have to do one at a time and see how … things are impacted,” Williams said. “But I think the combination of those things are of concern too – you have to do one thing, see what happens and then do something else.”
This story has been updated with new information.