COVID vaccination rates of NY teachers, school workers shrouded in secrecy. Here's why

David Robinson Gary Stern
New York State Team

COVID-19 vaccination rates of school workers in New York remain shrouded in secrecy because state officials deemed tracking the information unnecessary, despite closely monitoring vaccine efforts for other workers.

While New York releases detailed staff vaccination reports daily on hospitals and nursing homes statewide, Gov. Kathy Hochul’s administration decided against collecting and publicly reporting similar data for teachers and other school workers.

Instead, state regulations enacted in September only required schools to report details related to coronavirus cases and testing, which are released through a state-run website.

Meanwhile, school districts are required to maintain records on staff vaccination status, but many details have yet to be publicly released.

Amid heated debates over COVID-19 safety in schools, state officials deemed reporting COVID vaccination rates of NY school workers as extraneous. Residents signing up for contact tracing at Pomona Middle School in Pomona, shown here on Tuesday, October 19, 2021.

Some school districts have provided anecdotal accounts of staff vaccination rates ranging between 70% to 90%, according to media reports and school officials. But the lack of a statewide system to track the rates — and verify records — makes it difficult to fully gauge COVID-19 risks in New York schools.

Some parents and school officials expressed concerns about the lack of transparency when it comes to school staff vaccination rates.

Jenna Autuori, a parent in New Rochelle, said she feels many parents would want to know how many teachers are vaccinated and how many are not in their district.

“Why do we not have access to all the information that we can have?” she said. “I feel parents might feel more at ease knowing their child is in a room all day with an adult who is vaccinated.” 

In contrast to New York, the states of Maine and Washington have launched websites allowing people to search the percentage of workers vaccinated at schools and school districts, respectively.

“By publishing these vaccination rates each month, we hope to boost school staff vaccination even further, curb the spread of COVID-19, and equip school leaders with information to make the best decisions for their communities,” Maine Health Commissioner Jeanne Lambrew said in September.

What NY officials say about school vaccination rates

Protests opposed to New York's COVID-19 vaccine mandates and policies have rallied in communities statewide this fall. A protest in New York City in September is shown.

In New York, state Department of Health officials issued a statement last week defending the decision against tracking and publicly reporting school staff vaccination rates.

The agency, in part, asserted medical worker vaccination rates are tracked and released because the state enacted a vaccine mandate for the industry.

By contrast, state regulations included a test-out option for unvaccinated school workers, allowing them to keep their jobs if they undergo weekly testing.

“As this was designed to be a school staff testing policy and not a staff vaccination policy, it was determined that requiring schools to report vaccination rates among staff or students to the NYS Department of Health was extraneous to the primary goal of gathering test results and tracking positive cases,” spokesperson Abigail Barker said in the statement.

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The agency referred questions about the overall percentage of school workers statewide who are vaccinated to local school districts. The USA TODAY Network New York has filed public-records requests with more than 100 school districts seeking the vaccination data.

Meanwhile, New York City implemented a vaccine mandate for its school workers and recently reported 96% of teachers are vaccinated.

Further, state employees have been required to be fully vaccinated or undergo weekly testing since Oct. 12. And the employees report their vaccination and test results through a secure submission portal, according to a state Department of Corrections and Community Supervision statement last week.

About 13,800, or 54%, of the corrections department staff were fully vaccinated as of Oct. 25, the agency said.

What educators, parent say about school vaccination rates

Co-teachers at Yung Wing School P.S. 124 Marisa Wiezel (who is related to the photographer) and Caitlin Kenny give a lesson to their masked students in their classroom on September 27, 2021 in New York City. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images)

Some school districts, including New Rochelle, voluntarily provide limited information about staff vaccination rates to their communities.

Robert Lowry, deputy director of the state Council of School Superintendents, suggested some school officials were likely reluctant to publicly release more details about staff vaccination rates due to federal privacy laws.

“As a general proposition, there is a lot of sensitivity among school officials in handling personal health information of employees,” he said.

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But Autuori, the parent, said that the state could provide more complete, uniform data than what individual districts provide.

“I understand there are privacy concerns, but I just think schools are their own bubble aside from the community,” she said. “It’s about serving students. So we need to know what’s going on that's in the best interest of students.”

Harry Leonardatos, a high school principal in Rockland County who is president of the School Administrators Association of New York State, said it doesn’t make sense for the state to require unvaccinated school staff to get tested weekly but not collect the general data and release it to the public.

“I don’t get it,” he said. “It would be good for the public to know what the situation is in their schools. Why not put the data in the state portal, where they have case numbers, test results and the rest?”

Leonardatos said that if the state tracked the data, it could also help determine the effectiveness of having vaccinated school staff on slowing the spread of COVID-19.

“You would think there might be a correlation between the number of vaccinated staff in a building and the number of COVID cases,” he said.

Health department officials noted COVID-19 outbreaks in schools are detected through several methods, including confirmed case reports from schools and laboratory data.

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As for enforcement of the testing requirements for unvaccinated school staff, the state agency pointed to a section of the regulation that calls on local health officers to assist in implementing the measure without providing further details.

The Health Department acknowledged, however, that it had not conducted any vaccination record audits to determine compliance.

To address the privacy issue, Maine suppressed its school-level vaccine data when fewer than five workers were involved to avoid unintentionally exposing identities. The state of Washington released staff vaccine data by school district, suppressing any that involved less than 10 workers.

Katy Payne, a spokeswoman for Washington’s Office of Superintendent of Public Instruction, said state officials there never considered withholding school staff vaccination rates.

“We wanted to provide transparency for families, educators working in schools, and the public, and the media,” she said, “and to provide a statewide look at what’s happening.”

Washington’s overall school staff vaccination rate was 90% when its mandate took effect Oct. 18. It did not include a test-out option but offered limited medical and religious exemptions.

In New York, Carol Conklin-Spillane, a retired principal and superintendent in Westchester County and president of the Empire State Supervisors and Administrators Association, said the state should be as transparent as possible at a time when there is confusion and conflict over health protocols in schools.

“There is such ambiguity and suspicion right now over the tools we use to make decisions,” she said. “The absence of full disclosure can make people wonder. If we’re consistent with providing facts, the public can use the data when making decisions and maybe we’ll see the scaling back of conspiracy theories.”

She said school districts would probably have mixed feelings about having their vaccination data released.

“It might depend on how challenged they are when it comes to staff getting vaccinated,” she said.

What NY teachers’ union says about vaccination rates

New York State moved its Albany-area COVID mass-vaccination site to this former Lord & Taylor store in the Crossgates Mall in the town of Guilderland, shown here on May 23, 2021.

Some of the early crises so far this school year involved bus driver and support staff shortages at some schools, but it remains unclear what factor vaccination and testing regulations played in the situation.

“I haven’t heard in recent weeks any effort to quantify the different factors behind that,” Lowry said, referring to staffing shortfalls.

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The New York State United Teachers union representing 600,000 teachers and other workers statewide did not provide details on the vaccination rate of its membership.

“At a national level we know 90% of educators are vaccinated, and given New York’s comparatively high vaccination rates to other states, we have every reason to believe there is a high vaccination rate among New York educators,” union spokesman Matt Hamilton wrote in an email.

Hamilton noted the union has not lobbied Hochul’s administration on the decision against tracking and releasing school staff vaccination rates. 

“It’s a state decision,” he added. “Whatever the determination, our main focus is on ensuring any personal health information from our members is collected and stored safely.”

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David Robinson is the state health care reporter for the USA TODAY Network New York. He can be reached atdrobinson@gannett.com and followed on Twitter:@DrobinsonLoHud