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NYC schools reopen without COVID vaccine mandate for students: "We have to get it right"

NYC students return to in-person learning
NYC students return to in-person learning 03:32

As millions of kids head back to school, former FDA commissioner and Pfizer board member Scott Gottlieb said on "Face the Nation" that he believes COVID vaccines for children as young as five could be approved by the end of October.

Today, more than a million New York City students return to school, many without that protection. In what is the nation's largest school district, about 65 percent of the eligible student population, and roughly 75 percent of school staff, are vaccinated.

For New York City schools chancellor Meisha Porter, the return to the classroom is a milestone, one she's worked hard for since taking over in March.

"Our principals are ready, our teachers are ready, our students are ready," Porter told correspondent Meg Oliver. "We're ready. I can't wait."

She said masks will be required in the classroom; almost every room has at least two air purifiers; and all school staff must be vaccinated, having gotten at least one dose by September 27.

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The chancellor in the nation's largest school district says the city will avoid COVID closures seen in other states because of New York's higher vaccination rates. CBS News

Oliver asked, "Despite all of that, there are a lot of nervous parents. How do you reassure them that it is safe to send their kids back to school?"

"First, I'm sending my own kid back to school, into a New York City public school," Porter replied. "And so, I know parents are nervous. I think what's important is where we agree. And we all agree that the best learning happens in-person between students and teachers. And we have done the work to get our buildings safe, to get them ready, so that we can do what's most important for children."

It's the fulfillment of a promise from Mayor Bill de Blasio, who told CBS News in March he wanted every student back in class by September. "Do I think there's going to be parents and kids who are not ready even in September? Yes, of course," he said. "Do we have to have a remote option for them? Yes, we do."

Despite extensive precautions, some parents are worried, due to the more than 750,000 confirmed cases of the coronavirus in kids reported between August 5 and September 2. And although city officials say their safety protocols are the gold standard, that hasn't convinced some parents who say the city is pushing some kids into unsafe conditions.

Jennifer Goddard's 10-year-old son, August, isn't old enough for the vaccine, and while he has asthma and other underlying conditions, she said he doesn't automatically qualify for the city's "medically fragile" exemption – and can't stay home to attend class remotely. Students like August have the option to apply for a medical exemption and be placed in a home education program, but there's no guarantee the Department of Education will grant that request.

"To force people back into these situations is, it's an abomination," Goddard told Oliver. "Once he's vaccinated, it is a game-changer. He'll be first in line. But I just don't understand the rush, and the force."

Goddard said she's terrified after seeing COVID cases close schools and fill pediatric ICUs across the South. At the end of August, U.S. pediatric COVID cases hit an all-time high.

Oliver asked Chancellor Porter, "How do you prevent that from happening in the nation's largest school district?"

"Continue to follow the health and safety protocols," she replied. "I am confident that we're ready, that we won't have the closures that we're seeing in other states, because of where we are with our vaccination rates."

"How much pressure do you feel to get this right?"

"We have to get it right," Porter said. "There's no option."

Chancellor Porter told "CBS Mornings" that, right now, there is no plan to mandate a vaccine for New York City students, but that they're closely monitoring districts – like Los Angeles – that did.

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