Skip to main content

Religious Vaccine Exemption Is Nixed

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 20:09

Parents who previously opted their children out of routine vaccinations for religious reasons will no longer be able to claim that exemption for school enrollment purposes come September.

A new law passed on June 13 by New York State eliminates the religious exemption for children’s vaccines in response to what lawmakers said is one of the worst outbreaks of measles in 25 years in the United States, with “pockets of New York primarily driving the crisis.” Medical exemptions can still be obtained.

“As a result of non-medical vaccine exemptions, many communities across New York have unacceptably low rates of vaccination, and those unvaccinated children can often attend school where they may spread the disease to other unvaccinated students, some of whom cannot receive vaccines due to medical conditions,” the state said in an announcement dated June 18. “This new law will help protect the public amid this ongoing outbreak.”

The law extends not just to public school students but also to private and parochial schools.

According to documents published by New York State, for the start of school or day care in September, children with previous religious vaccine exemptions must receive the first dose of their immunizations within the first 14 days of school. Parents must show, within 30 days of the start of school, that they have scheduled appointments for all required follow-up doses of vaccines.

There was a deadline of June 29 to have children currently enrolled in school or day care programs receive their first dose of vaccines, and a deadline of July 14 for parents to show they have scheduled appointments for follow-up doses.

“Hayground School, and all students, must be in compliance at the start of the new school year in September,” Marcelle Langendal, the school’s faculty chairwoman, confirmed in an email.

“It’s too early to tell” how the new law will impact the Ross School, Dan Roe, director of communications for the school, said in an email, but the administration “is fleshing out our plan for ensuring that students are brought into New York State compliance.”

“When the health forms for the 2019-20 school year are in, we’ll reach out to any parents who may have opted for religious exemption to vaccinations in the past and invite them to discuss the matter with us individually,” Mr. Roe said. “Ross is defined by its diversity and respect for world cultures; however we must abide by state regulations. Therefore, with regard to this matter, our top priority is to hold a respectful and honest conversation with anyone who may have concerns. Again, I can’t speak to how any of the families of our students will ultimately respond to these new regulations, but our community is such that hackles are rarely raised and trust is the decisive factor.”

Another school, Our Sons and Daughters, also reached out to its parent community about the change by email and said it is looking into how it might affect its parent and child programs.

Maggie Touchette, the school’s administrator and one of the teachers, said in an email to The Star, “Our school is affected in the way all schools are: We have a new law to comply with. We school always complies with all federal, state, local, etc., laws.”

The day the state passed the new law, NPR reported that 26,217 students in New York State across all grade schools, high schools, and day cares had religious exemptions from vaccinations in the 2017-18 school year.

Specifically for measles, mumps, and rubella, about 96 percent of students in New York State have received vaccines, NPR said.

The immunization rule change has boosted the number of local parents inquiring about home-schooling their children, according to Teresa Loos, who leads local home-school groups and parent information sessions at libraries throughout Long Island.

Those who home-school are not impacted by the change in the immunization law, she said, unless the children have to go to their local school facilities for some reason.

“Home-schooling has been around a really long time,” Ms. Loos said in an interview. “Many home-schoolers vaccinate and some don’t. Some are vegans, some are not. There are all kinds of people who home-school for many different reasons. Maybe there’s bullying or a food allergy, or religious beliefs, and recently it’s been the vaccination issues. A few years ago it was the Common Core and tests. Every few years there’s something, and they decide home-schooling’s going to be it.”

In the East Hampton School District, Cindy Allentuck, the director of pupil personnel services, said fewer than 10 students are impacted by the change in the law.

“We hand-delivered letters to each of the parents to inform them, and that will be followed up by calls from our nursing staff to answer any questions they may have,” Ms. Allentuck said. “It’s out of our hands. The government decided to do it because of the health issues that are going on, the measles outbreaks, and we follow what the state tells us to do. We’re not allowed to make a judgment call or be subjective about it.”

In the Sag Harbor School District, Matthew Malone, the principal of Sag Harbor Elementary School, said there are about 10 students who previously had religious exemptions in his school. Jeff Nichols, the Pierson High School principal, said about 10 secondary students are also impacted.

Mr. Malone said letters were sent to families who are impacted by the change.

“I spoke to a few parents, and they seem to understand,” he said.

In the Bridgehampton School District, four students had religious exemptions, according to Michael Miller, the principal. He said the district made individual phone calls and sent letters and emails to the families affected by the change in the law.

“I would not describe the parent conversations as pushback,” Mr. Miller said. “I would describe the conversations as inquiry-based — the parents wanting to gain more clarity as to why the change in the law and what entails a medical exemption.”

More information on the change in the law, as well as on immunizations themselves, can be found online at ocfs.ny.gov/main/.