Regina Sung, Photo Editor

Some New Haven students were met with empty classrooms last Monday after approximately 150 school employees failed to comply with a new statewide vaccine requirement.

On Sept. 27, all employees of New Haven Public Schools were required to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19, or opt into weekly testing as an alternative. NHPS created these requirements to comply with Governor Ned Lamont’s Executive Order 13G, which mandates that state employees, school staff and child care workers get vaccinated — unless exempted for medical or religious reasons. However, exempted employees, as well as those who choose to remain unvaccinated, must submit to testing requirements. According to Justin Harmon — NHPS director of marketing and communications — 93 percent of NHPS employees had submitted either proof of vaccination or a negative test result by Oct. 1. But approximately 150 employees were not in compliance when the policy took full effect on Monday. As of Oct. 10, only one teacher was still noncompliant with the order.

“Staff were told to leave the building for being non-compliant, classrooms were left without teachers and paraprofessionals, other teachers and staff were called in to cover classrooms,” said Jennifer Graves, a preschool special education teacher at New Haven’s Dr. Reginald Mayo Early Learning Center. “So with a lack of substitute teachers that the district already has, with our schools already short-staffed from a teacher shortage, it really put quite a strain on those who were left in buildings today.”

Monday was the first day that the policy was fully enforced — as employees had until Oct. 1 to submit documentation of a negative test result for the week of Sept. 27. At Graves’ school, where some teachers had failed to comply, she described the situation as “pretty chaotic.” But Steven Baumann — a teacher at Conte West Hills Middle School — told the News that the institution did not experience the same staffing issues, and that he was not aware of any issues of noncompliance with the order.

The administration at the Dr. Reginald Mayo Early Learning Center did not respond to multiple phone and email requests for comment. Harmon told the News he could not provide information on the number of teachers who had opted into the weekly testing option instead of submitting vaccination records.

The NHPS policy states that employees who do not comply with the order will experience disciplinary action. Such consequences range from verbal and written warnings to unpaid leaves of absence — and potential termination of employment. Further, employees who do not comply are not allowed on school premises and they can only use personal leave — not paid vacation or sick leave — to take time off until compliance is met.

While Harmon told the News that the district has “kept up a steady stream of information on the governor’s mandate,” Graves said she felt a little “confused” by the district’s communication regarding how and where to upload the required proof of vaccination or negative COVID-19 test results. She also described changing information about how teachers could get their weekly COVID-19 tests — originally, the district said they would offer free, on-site COVID-19 testing, but now employees must get tested outside of school on their own time.

Harmon told the News that the district is not offering on-site COVID-19 testing, but that tests are “readily available.”

Baumann also said he felt like the communication from the district was somewhat lacking and that he would like for data about NHPS vaccination rates to be more accessible.

“I think that the district in general could be much more proactive in their communications,” he said. “Everything seems to be last minute.”

Despite these hiccups, Graves said that she and several of her colleagues felt reassured by the new requirements.

“I was really happy to hear that the state was going through with these requirements,” Graves told the News. “First and foremost, we need to keep our staff safe, we need to keep our school safe, we need to keep our students safe. And obviously, vaccination and testing is the way to do that right now.”

Dave Cicarella, president of the New Haven Federation of Teachers, said there was “no question” that the governor’s order has increased vaccination rates among NHPS staff.

“Some just always meant to do it [and are now saying], ‘Oh shoot, I have to do it now there’s a deadline,’” he said. “Other ones who still don’t agree are basically saying, ‘I don’t agree … but if I’ve got to comply, I’m going to comply.’”

According to Cicarella, although many employees — including the teachers union — support the policy, a point of contention came at the role unions had in the policymaking process.

Cicarella said NHPS staff unions were able to offer input on the new policies. But the district did not follow the impact bargaining process, in which the district formally negotiates with unions instead of implementing a decision unilaterally, despite its legal responsibility to do so when making decisions about employees’ use of personal leave and potential termination. He said the union is still in conversations with NHPS to resolve these issues.

NHPS has approximately 3,300 employees.

SADIE BOGRAD