This story was originally published by Chalkbeat, a nonprofit news organization covering public education. Sign up for their newsletters here: ckbe.at/newsletters
More than 5,000 school safety agents guard the doors and hallways of New York City’s roughly 1,600 schools.
This coming Tuesday, hundreds of these officers, if not thousands, might come off the payroll, as the city’s vaccine mandate takes effect.
Schools are trying to prepare for the fallout from the city’s vaccine mandate, which gives any school-based employee until the end of day this Monday to submit proof of their first dose.
The education department estimates some 10,000 teachers have yet to upload proof of vaccination, while the teachers union said Friday the number of unvaccinated teachers was closer to 6,000.
Still, nearly 20,000 other school-based workers also have not yet complied, including large numbers of school safety agents. The vaccination rate for school safety agents could be as low as 40%, the head of the safety agents union told the New York Post.
Principals were told this week that schools without metal detectors would likely only get one school safety agent reporting for duty, said Mark Cannizzaro, head of the union representing school administrators, at a joint press conference with the head of the teachers union on Friday.
Schools with scanners would get slightly more. Safety agents will also be required to do 12-hour shifts, principals told Chalkbeat.
“The feedback we are getting from our principals,” Cannizzaro said, “they are not comfortable come Tuesday morning that they are going to be able to safely staff their schools.”
‘A Lot of Substitutes Ready’
The number of safety agents at a given school depends on whether it’s an elementary, middle or high school, as well as the number of students enrolled. Some large high schools with 20 safety agents might have to go down to one or two, Cannizzaro said.
He and United Federation of Teachers Union head Michael Mulgrew called on the city to delay the implementation of the vaccine mandate to give schools more time to ensure they could cover staffing shortages.
School leaders received an email from the education department this week— just three business days before possible staffing crunches hit schools — letting them know they would get funding this Monday to help cover the cost of having to hire substitute teachers the following day.
But the guidance said nothing about how to cover some other roles that are crucial to keep a school running, such as school safety agents, cafeteria workers or custodial engineers. Besides not having enough security agents at school entrances, it could mean schools go without hot meals and other issues.
“We’re asking for staff not to be placed on leave until they can be staffed properly,” Cannizzaro said.
De Blasio showed no indication of pressing the pause button, saying the “vast majority” of school staff will be vaccinated by Tuesday.
“The fact is we’ve been planning all along,” he said Friday on WNYC. “We have a lot of substitutes ready.”
Department of education officials did not immediately respond for comment.
Back-up Plans in the Works
School safety agents play a range of roles on campus.
They greet and sign in visitors to school buildings, and at some schools, they operate metal detectors.
They also respond to fights, and even issue arrests — a subject of contention given the racial disparities in arrests and concerns that such moves tangle some students up in the legal system long term. (Most school-based arrests, however, are carried out by regular patrol officers called into schools rather than safety agents stationed in buildings.)
In many cases, they’re called to respond to student mental health crises. They wear NYPD uniforms, but they are not armed.
One principal, who typically has seven school safety agents, was coming up with contingency scenarios for Tuesday.
“Our backup plan is if there is a need for the one [school safety agent] during the day, then we (administrators) will stay at the front entry desk while the [school safety agent] goes to deal with the fight/incident,” said the principal, speaking anonymously for fear of retribution.
The police department took control of the school safety division in the late 1990s under the Giuliani administration, and its budget has grown significantly under de Blasio, now standing at nearly $425 million.
More recently, some advocates have pushed to sharply reduce the size of the division, and de Blasio pledged to transfer control of the division from the NYPD to the department of education by this coming June.
But that move might stall given that his successor, most likely Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, reportedly said he would block it.
The vaccine mandate inadvertently could achieve what some advocates have long sought: significantly defunding this school-based security force overseen by the NYPD, which in itself would be one of the largest police forces in the nation.