A vaccine mandate for New York City's public school teachers and other staffers can go forward as planned next week, after a state judge on Wednesday lifted a temporary restraining order.
The city had announced last month that school employees would have to get at least a first dose of a coronavirus vaccine by Sept. 27, impacting about 148,000 school workers and contractors.
A coalition of city unions had filed a lawsuit against the mandate and had asked for the injunction against its implementation. State Supreme Court Justice Laurence Love put the TRO in place last week, but removed it in his ruling on Wednesday.
In a statement, the Department of Education said the ruling was “a big win for New York City children and Department of Education employees. Their health and safety is at the very core of this vaccine mandate, and we are pleased the court recognized the city’s legal authority.”
The officials with the unions said they intended to continue the legal action.
“We are deeply disappointed that the temporary injunction has been lifted," Henry Garrido, executive director of DC 37, said in a statement. “This is not the end of the road and we will continue to fight for the right of workers to make their own healthcare decisions."
The president of the Municipal Labor Committee, the group that filed the lawsuit against the mandate to begin with, said in a statement that their case "has already led to progress in protecting the rights of our members, since the city – in the wake of the court’s initial issuance of the restraining order – admitted that there can be exceptions to the vaccine mandate. The court -- while lifting the restraining order -- has not made a final decision, and we are preparing additional material to support our case."
When asked for comment, the United Federation of Teachers — the largest teachers union in the city — referred to the statement made by the Municipal Labor Committee, which they are a part of.
Love said he had initially ordered the injunction because the city's original mandate didn't say anything about medical or religious exemptions, but said the city subsequently put out language saying nothing in the mandate would prohibit accommodations that are legally required.
On Sept. 10, the city and the union representing teachers in the country's largest school district came to an agreement through an arbitrator on those teachers unwilling to get vaccinated, such as those with medical and religious exemptions. It was agreed that those educators must be offered alternative work assignments.
Non-classroom work will be offered to educators with specific medical conditions who have not been vaccinated, but also to vaccinated teachers who have suppressed immune systems, the arbitrator ruled.
Teachers who decline to vaccinate against COVID-19 and do not qualify for an exemption will be offered unpaid leave through September 2022 -- their medical insurance will still be covered. All staff who refuse unpaid leave can take a severance package instead, or face discipline, the union said at the time.
The judge said that removed the need for the injunction, and also doubted the unions' ultimately being able to succeed in their claim that their due process rights were being violated.
“The state and federal courts have consistently held that a mandatory vaccine requirement does not violate substantive due process rights and properly fall within the state’s police power," Love wrote.
Parents in the city seemed to agree with the judge's decision Wednesday night.
"I do think it's fair. It makes me feel my son's safer and we'll have more continuity in his teachers if they get sick," said parent Marcia Stern.
Even those who disagree with the finding found the logic behind the decision.
"I think it's unfair, but I also think it could protect them at the same time," said parent Randy Vazquez.
More than 80 percent of teachers have already been vaccinated, according to union estimates.
Middle school teacher Asa Henry said that allowing "the government to just be able to mandate anything, anytime, it sets a really bad precedent in the future," which is why he understood the reason for the unions' displeasure at it. However, he also said that keeping his daughter safe is the priority.
The ruling comes after New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made tweaks to school COVID policy, a week after the nation's largest public school district opened its doors fully in person for the first time since the pandemic hit -- and a day after one Manhattan school announced it had to go all-remote because of an outbreak.
The two changes announced Monday involve testing and quarantine procedures and will take effect simultaneously on Sept. 27, which is also the deadline for city public school teachers and staff to have at least their first shot of the vaccine.
Starting then, schools will conduct randomized weekly testing, rather than biweekly testing, at all public elementary, middle and high schools citywide.
The mayor also said the city will shift its school quarantine approach to align with the CDC. Under that guidance, when there is a positive case in a single classroom, the unvaccinated students in that classroom will not have to quarantine if, and only if, they have been masked and keeping at least 3 feet of distance.
The Democrat said the adjustments were born from city officials' assessment of the first week of in-person classes for nearly a million students and how COVID policy could be improved going forward given the ongoing delta variant threat.
"The goal is always two crucial things -- first and foremost the health and safety of our kids and our whole school community, second maximizing the number of kids in school every day, avoiding disruption, giving our kids a chance to make that comeback that we know we're going to make this year," de Blasio said.
In an information session for UFT chapter leaders held Wednesday, union president Michael Mulgrew asked five yes or no questions regarding de Blasio's new COVID quarantine policy. The answers overwhelmingly showed frustration with the new decisions, including 98 percent of the 1,200 members present saying that the mayor has no clue what is happening inside of schools, and that neither de Blasio nor the city's Department of Education has a plan to keep the children in schools safe.