REPORT: New York’s Discarded and Disregarded

Holding a Syringe
Diana Polekhina, Unsplash

The City School District of the City of New York’s vaccine mandate has proven chaotic, to say the least. The Department of Education (DOE) is now short about 8,000 people (including 3,000 teachers), and parents say their children aren’t getting the specialized services they need. 

While these stories of disorder are poignant and necessary, they also leave people behind. More specifically, the teachers who failed to comply with the vaccine mandate had reasons for doing so. Their objections were oftentimes rooted in their faith, something that the DOE didn’t appear to take too seriously. 

On Oct. 5, Chalkboard Review highlighted the story of Stephanie Edmonds, a mother and history teacher whose application for a religious exemption was denied without further explanation. She wasn’t alone.

Special education teacher Crisleidy Castillo is breastfeeding her newborn baby. In an email with Chalkboard Review staff, she expressed concern about what effects the vaccine may have on her child.

Castillo was given mixed information, being told that she both needed to be in her classroom and to stay away. “Honestly, it was such a melancholy journey, taking my belongings after coming in several weeks before school to organize my classroom, and after meeting my students and putting faces to the name tags I taped on the desks,” she said.

Finally, the DOE informed her that her request for an exemption was denied. No explanation was given. 

“It deeply saddens me, knowing that my students are academically behind several grades, and instead of working on closing the academic gaps while addressing the social-emotional needs of students we are focusing on the vaccine,” Castillo lamented. 

Ricardo Alexander, who taught math and physics in New York City’s public schools for more than two decades, had a very similar experience. He claimed that the district seemed to favor religious exemptions tied to either Jehovah’s Witnesses or Christian Science.

“I have strongly held religious convictions all my adult life… As a result, I have been a strict vegan for 37 years and have refrained from using medications. I don’t even use aspirin for headaches. I  have requested a religious exemption from every single institution that I attended…each of these institutions has granted my request for a religious exemption,” Alexander said in a statement to Chalkboard Review staff.

However, this time was different. Alexander’s request was denied, and he was told that to exempt him would “cause undue hardship to the DOE.”

“The actions of the DOE have caused undue hardship to me and other teachers who have a legitimate religious exemption. I have spent many years going to school, earning my various degrees, becoming certified to teach, and then to become tenured as a NYC public school teacher. I  have not violated any of the Chancellor’s Regulations. It is greatly disturbing to me that even those accused of wrongdoings are treated better than I have been,” Alexander concluded. 

Kelly Loper also feels as if her religious views were disregarded by the DOE. She says that she was not even given the opportunity to defend herself and her views. “Our denial letters were uniform and stated that the reason for denial was they have nowhere to place us because there is no remote instruction this year,” she noted in an email with Chalkboard Review staff.

“Under the law, employers have to provide a reasonable accommodation for workers who have sincerely held religious beliefs, which I do, and I shared my personal beliefs with them. My rights were violated, and being placed on unpaid leave is not a reasonable accommodation to provide me with. No, I wasn’t fired, but they have cut me off from my job because of my religious beliefs. Denying my exemption is denying my faith. How is that possible? How is that morally acceptable?”

Under federal law, a religious exemption for vaccination can be denied if it would cause “undue hardship” on an employer’s legitimate business interests. However, as of Sept. 24, the DOE had approved 530 exemptions, raising the question of why some exemptions were granted and others weren’t given the time of day. 

But Loper doesn’t have time for these complicated legal questions to be sorted out. “We are praying every day that the city will eventually realize the repercussions of this are falling on students, and allow a testing option, or that a new Mayor will be elected who will flip things, but it is a strong possibility that we may need to consider selling our home and moving if things do not change,” Roper added. 

History will be the ultimate arbiter of the vaccine mandates, but one thing is certain: New York City’s decision comes with real consequences for teachers and families up and down the five boroughs.

Garion Frankel
Garion Frankel is a graduate student at Texas A&M University’s Bush School of Government and Public Service with a concentration in education policy and management. He is a Young Voices contributor, and Chalkboard Review’s breaking news reporter.

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