PROSPECT HEIGHTS — Officials in the Diocese of Brooklyn reacted with concern and frustration over a COVID-19 vaccine mandate for private and religious schools imposed by Mayor Bill de Blasio.
Dr. Thomas Chadzutko, diocesan superintendent of schools, said the city as of midday Friday, Dec. 3 had not sent the diocese formal notification of the mandate and had not offered any guidance on how it would be enforced.
“We’ve received nothing official, so we don’t know. Will we be fined? Will we be shut down? We don’t know any of those outcomes because no one’s communicated to us in a proper way as to what can be done,” Chadzutko said Friday, the day after the mayor’s announcement.
“We don’t want to go against the health order. What we are asking for is clarity and rationale as to why it’s being done,” he added.
The Tablet reached out to the mayor’s office and to the city Department of Health for clarification but received no response.
On Dec. 2, de Blasio announced the city was imposing a mandate for all teachers and staff members in private and religious schools in the city — including Catholic schools and yeshivas — to be vaccinated against COVID-19.
Technically, the mayor extended the parameters of an executive order he issued through the Department of Health for public schools back in August to now include private and religious schools.
“We are doing everything in our power to protect our students and school staff, and a mandate for non-public school employees will help keep our school communities and youngest New Yorkers safe,” de Blasio said in a statement.
The mandate affects an estimated 56,000 employees in 938 Catholic schools, yeshivas, and other private schools in the city. The Diocese of Brooklyn has 69 in-person schools and academies, one remote-learning academy, and employs approximately 2,200 teachers.
Under the newly-issued mandate, school employees will be required to show proof that they have received a first dose of the vaccine by Dec. 20.
Gina Auricchio, a resource room teacher at St. Athanasius Catholic Academy in Bensonhurst, is fully vaccinated but is opposed to the mandate.
“I really don’t think it’s fair because certain people should have their individual choice,” she told Currents News.
Chadzutko said teachers and staff members in Catholic schools in Brooklyn and Queens had a 94% compliance rate with vaccinations as of Dec. 3. Those who are not vaccinated are tested every Friday.
Diocese education officials are opposed to the mandate partly because there might be extenuating circumstances as to why a teacher or staff member can’t get vaccinated, such as a serious illness that the vaccine would complicate, he said.
In addition, Chadzutko contends that the Dec. 20 deadline — less than three weeks away — poses an undue burden on employees who now have to scramble to get vaccinated. “It is unfortunately not realistic,” he said.
Auricchio also criticized the quick deadline.
“The public schools did have much time to process this and think about their choices and options. I do think that (the deadline) should definitely be extended for those who maybe are considering it,” she said.
The diocese has joined a coalition of religious and independent schools across the city in asking the mayor to reconsider.
“This is an area where government should be using its bully pulpit to persuade, not its regulatory arm to coerce,” Rabbi David Zwiebel, chairman of the Committee of NYC and Independent School Officials, wrote in a letter to de Blasio and City Health Commissioner Dr. Dave Chokshi.
The office of the superintendent of schools for the Archdiocese of New York issued a statement Friday saying there is a high rate of vaccine compliance in its schools without a mandate in place. As a result, there is a “nearly zero rate” of COVID transmission in its schools, officials said.
The archdiocese plans to “review the mandate to determine this order’s relevance and applicability to our Catholic schools, and any potential response,” the statement read.
Chadzutko said the lack of communication from City Hall is troubling.
While there were rumblings in recent days that such a mandate might be looming, the city issued no prior warning to anticipate the mandate, according to Chadzutko. He said the city could have consulted with diocesan officials beforehand to assess the situation in local schools.
“That’s the frustration. Where’s the collaboration?” he said.
Msgr. David Cassato, vicar of schools for the Diocese of Brooklyn, said precautions have already been taken in Catholic schools to provide protections against COVID.
“We opened our schools as scheduled for the 2020-2021 school year, weeks before the public schools brought their students back. Since then, we have done a tremendous job keeping the coronavirus out of our schools and I believe what we are doing, and how we are doing it, is working well,” he said.
The precautions include mandatory mask-wearing and social distancing and requiring parents to fill out health questionnaires every morning, in which they indicate whether or not their children have COVID symptoms. Children with symptoms are sent home. Teachers are required to show proof of vaccination or submit to a COVID test once a week.
The mayor’s announcement came as the city braced for the Omicron variant of the virus, which was first discovered in South Africa and has been detected in the U.S. As of Dec. 3, four Omicron cases had been confirmed in New York City.
The mayor issued the mandate with less than a month to go in his term. It’s not clear what Mayor-elect Eric Adams will do once he takes office on Jan. 1.
The Tablet reached out to a spokesperson for the mayor-elect but has not yet received a response.