NEW YORK DAILY NEWS | JUN 01, 2021 AT 5:48 PM
As New York City public schools’ fall reopening plans come into focus, the city’s charter school networks are still sorting through thorny questions about virtual classes and COVID-19 vaccine requirements — and sometimes landing on solutions at odds with those of the Department of Education.
Mayor de Blasio confirmed last week city schools will not offer remote classes in an effort to jumpstart in-person learning, and will not mandate vaccines for DOE staffers.
The city’s largest charter network, Success Academy, is taking a different tack on both questions — offering a virtual option through the first marking period and requiring staffers to get inoculated.
“Although we believe on-campus learning is best, it seemed reasonable to provide families with an option [for virtual classes] even for a brief window of time,” said Success spokesman Sam Chafee, noting the network made the call in February before many were vaccinated.
The vaccine requirement for staffers is a way “to ensure everyone’s safety,” Chafee added.
City charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately run, enroll roughly 140,000, more than 90% of whom are students of color.
Public Prep, a charter school network of four schools enrolling 2,200 students, is taking a similar approach as Success in regard to the vaccine.
The network’s CEO, Janelle Bradshaw, said a months-long “hearts and minds” campaign to promote vaccination that involved town hall forums with doctors, help scheduling vaccine appointments, and one-on-one conversations about hesitancy moved the needle — but not far enough.
The network told staffers in April they would be required to get the shots before returning to school.
“The peace of mind you can offer staff members” with an assurance everyone is vaccinated “is really what led us to move in this direction,” she said, noting that 100% staff vaccination will cut down on coronavirus cases in school buildings and allow teachers to avoid quarantining if they’re exposed to an infected student.
“We’re mandating vaccines to create a predictable environment for staff and students,” she added.
About 70 % of Public Prep staffers are now vaccinated, Bradshaw said, though there are still striking disparities by race, with 92% of white workers fully vaccinated, and 50% of Black staffers inoculated.
Most charter networks are still taking a more cautious approach towards vaccine mandates.
“We’re using very strong language that falls just short of this is what you need to do to keep your job,” said one charter leader who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
None of the other five networks contacted by the Daily News said they are currently mandating vaccines for staff.
“As I speak to tons of other colleagues, there’s been more of an education campaign and words like ‘highest expectation’ and a constant tracking of it,” the charter leader said.
“Everyone is dancing around that issue and waiting for others to make a move,” the charter leader continued.
The question of how to track vaccinations is also provoking divergent responses. The DOE isn’t systematically asking staffers to report their vaccination status, making it difficult to get an exact count. The agency said at least 50%, or 70,000 staffers, are vaccinated, but that figure only includes city residents jabbed in the five boroughs.
Many charters, meanwhile — even those not mandating the vaccine — are requiring employees to report their vaccination status.
“A lot of schools went ahead, with legal guidance, and told them [staff] they need to tell us if they got the vaccine,” said one charter leader.
“It’s kind of hard to make decisions if you’re walking in the dark,” said Bradshaw of the push to track vaccination.
Charters have occupied a tricky space in the complex school reopening debate.
The networks set their own reopening policies, but often share space with city public schools, making them subject to the same set of rules governing classroom and building closures.
Charters were also left out of a massive, city-funded COVID-19 school surveillance testing program — an exclusion some networks said made it difficult to resume in-person learning.
Most city charters have proceeded cautiously with the pace of reopening.
Success Academy has been entirely remote since last March, while Uncommon schools launched hybrid learning in January, and KIPP restarted in-person classes in March.
That caution may extend into the fall, with some charter networks still considering a virtual option for families unwilling or able to return to school buildings.
Success and Democracy Prep said they’re planning to extend a virtual option through the fall.
KIPP NYC and Achievement First said they’re still deciding on remote class this fall. Uncommon Schools did not return a request for comment.