The first vaccine mandate for NYC public school staff took effect on August 23rd of this year. Four months later, Mayor Bill de Blasio and the Department of Health have decided to eliminate the religious exemption that once excluded religious people from having to be vaccinated.
The new mandate applies to about 56,000 employees and 938 schools that will have to comply, with risk of being fined if they do not. Staff members must be able to prove that they have had at least one dose of a vaccine by Dec. 20th. Upon request, the city will be able to provide vaccines to staff and students and private schools. This stricter requirement comes as a result of the emergence of the new COVID variant, Omicron.
In a video posted on his Twitter account, De Blasio stated that this mandate “is what’s going to keep us safe”. He believes that using incentives and mandates is what caused more than 43,000 school staff members to get vaccinated the first time around. With 71% of people in NYC already fully vaccinated, this may push NY to an even higher vaccination rate.
This wouldn’t be the first time that NY cancelled religious exemptions for vaccines. In 2019, the U.S suffered a measle outbreak. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this was “the greatest number of cases reported in the U.S since 1992”. Many of the cases were reported in Orthodox Jewish communities in New York. In light of this, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill ending the exemptions, and schoolchildren were required to provide proof of vaccination. During the assembly to pass the bill, many angry parents shouted in protest after the vote count in favor of it was announced.
Religious leaders predict that there will be some legal opposition this time around too. The Committee of NYC Religious and Independent School Officials chairman Rabbi David Zwiebel is amongst those that have expressed disapproval. In a letter to De Blasio, he wrote, “The practical impact of the city imposing an immunization mandate could be devastating to our schools and the children they serve”. He believes that a few private employees will continue to resist this new mandate and remain true to their values. This will have a direct effect on students because staff members who do not comply will have to be dismissed from their jobs, per the mandate.
Some wonder if NYC will be allowed to enforce this mandate in the first place. For example, religious healthcare workers have challenged the removal of religious exemptions in lower level courts. They took their request to higher officials, which only resulted in rejection by the Supreme Court. The parents of young students are likely to follow suit and challenge the same exemption removal. Their arguments may be founded on the premise that they believe this mandate is a violation of constitutional rights and religious freedom.
New York residents should keep an eye out for a possible challenge of the mandate and new regulations that may be implemented due to the emergence of Omicron.