NEW YORK — Since Monday, Jessica Waverka has had no idea who would replace her son Theo’s longtime paraprofessional, who took leave when the city's COVID-19 vaccine mandate went into effect.

What You Need To Know

  • About 2,000 of the city’s 23,000 paraprofessionals are now on leave because they did not get vaccinated

  • For one student in Brooklyn, that’s resulted in several days without the one-to-one para he’s mandated to receive at school

  • The city says it has enough substitutes, and is expediting the background check processes required to get them in classrooms

“My son's para is the only reason that he can access the Department of Education school building. She ensures that he's safe, that he doesn't elope, or wander out of the building. She helps him with his emotional regulation when he's in the classroom,” Waverka said. “He has an eating disorder — she helps him make sure that he is intaking enough food and fluids throughout the day. She also helps him with his schoolwork — and enormous support for this child.”

Now, she's gone, news Waverka received just hours before school started Monday, with little time to prepare her son for a major change.

“When we got there, it was clear that he was going to start trying to escape from the school because his para wasn't there, and he was feeling very anxious about that,” she said.

Another experienced para whose student wasn’t at school was able to help get Theo to class. But when that other student arrived hours later, Theo was once again without what's called a one-to-one paraprofessional, someone working directly and only with him, as required by his Individualized Education Program (IEP).

“Every service that's in there is federally mandated,” Waverka said. “It's legally what your child is obligated to get. It's a contract.”

A contract the city's in breach of by having Theo share a para with another child, despite Mayor Bill de Blasio's insistence the city has more than enough substitute staff, including paraprofessionals.

“We’re sorry this happened and are working with school and  district leadership to ensure this student has the support they need,” DOE spokeswoman Katie O’Hanlon said. “The vaccine mandate was put in place for the health and safety of our school communities and we have dedicated teams doing all that they can to meet the needs of all, but especially, our most vulnerable students.”

The DOE says it is working to expedite the hiring of a substitute para the school has found for Theo. That’s something department officials at a City Council hearing promised was happening citywide, when asked about other schools struggling to get substitute paras in place.

The process of on-boarding those paras includes fingerprinting and background checks.

“It’s important that they go through the same background checking, vetting process that our other staff do as well, but we are absolutely expediting those,” Lauren Siciliano, the DOE’s chief administrative officer, told the Council on Wednesday.

Of the city’s 23,000 paraprofessionals, about 2,000 chose not to get vaccinated and are now on unpaid leave. But the city says it has 5,700 vaccinated subs to replace them.

Waverka questioned why those substitutes weren’t approved to be in classrooms in time to avoid a gap in services for students.

“Of course we want really appropriate and safe and qualified people in the building, but we need to get these people there that are qualified,” she said.

For parents like Waverka, it’s frustrating to hear de Blasio tout the overall 95% vaccination of school staff. For her, what’s mattered is that other five percent.

"I absolutely believe in and support vaccines. Vaccines do save lives and they're important,” she said. “But we really should have had a backup plan because that 5% represents a significant loss.”

Waverka says she’s confident Theo will be OK, in part because she has the time and privilege to advocate on his behalf and to speak with the press about his situation.

“But there are thousands of other children — especially poor, and children of color, new arrivals, new immigrants, children with profound needs — who do not have this platform today,” she said. “So I want to ask that everybody be compassionate and understand that when the mayor talks about 95% of people are vaccinated — and that this is a victory — this is not a victory for many children.”


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