Choice for families is clear: vaccinate or home school

As schools all over the state wound down for the summer, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation that removed religious vaccination exemptions for children attending school. The law was the latest in an effort to contain ongoing measles outbreaks in several New York counties. It mandates that unvaccinated students at public, private, and parochial schools have 30 days from their first day at school to provide proof they have received the first dose of required vaccinations. 

The removal of non-medical exemptions for immunizations has made waves in the Onteora School District, where the rate of unvaccinated students is higher than many New York schools, according to data from the New York Department of Health for the 2017-2018 school year.

This leaves the families of approximately 75 students across all Onteora schools — Woodstock, Phoenicia, Bennett and the Middle/High School — with a choice: to vaccinate their children, home school them, or move to a state with less restrictive vaccination laws.

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“For a lot of people, this is an incredibly personal and really emotional issue,” said Onteora Superintendent Victoria McLaren. “The unfortunate effect is that [the law] was decided in a time frame that didn’t allow people a good amount of time to consider and then make plans.”

For one Onteora parent who has always utilized religious vaccination exemptions for her children, the new law came as a shock. 

“For a family, your school situation, your home situation, your health situation, they’re really foundational,” said the parent, who will be referred to as A. for privacy reasons. “When we found out that we suddenly had to make this major decision, everyone was in upheaval. My kids are pretty attached to school,” she said.

Superintendent McLaren expressed concern about withdrawing students who have been a part of the public school structure. “It could be very disruptive to take them away from all the teachers they have grown to rely on, potentially the supports they have here at school, their friends, the activities, the sports,” she said.

Measles outbreaks in recent years have been attributed to the rise of vaccine hesitancy. This feeling of mistrust towards vaccines can be traced back to a study that apparently falsely linked the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine to autism. While multiple scientific studies since have shown no connection between vaccines and autism, the myth has persisted. 

Further apparent misinformation has been spread widely about the ingredients in vaccines. One such ingredient, thimerosal, contains ethylmercury, which the Center for Disease Control clarifies is a different form of mercury than that which causes mercury poisoning, methylmercury, and is safe in small doses. This ingredient, though, which is used to prevent contamination in the flu vaccination, is not present in the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine.

A., the Onteora parent, said that she understands the concept of immunizations, but questions the additives. “The immunizations that they use have a lot more ingredients than just dead cells or weakened cells. To me, that’s like saying, if I don’t want to feed my kid boxes of Monsanto-grown, dried, processed foods, then I’m an anti-food person.”

She believes having access to nutritious food and clean air and water has kept her children healthy. “I feel like we have the tools to keep ourselves as healthy as possible and we don’t necessarily need to rely on vaccines, depending on our environment,” she said. 

Civil rights, science and herd immunity

The question of freedom and choice has emerged as the emotional core of the vaccination debate, both nationwide and in the Onteora district. For A., her children’s right to a free education is fundamental, and having the choice whether or not to vaccinate her children is “a civil right…the right to choose vaccines is pretty similar to the right to choose abortion. If it’s your body, you choose,” she said.

But to New York lawmakers and health department officials, the choice of some parents not to vaccinate their children can lead to a greater public health crisis.

“We’re putting science ahead of misinformation about vaccines and standing up for the rights of immuno-compromised children and adults, pregnant women and infants who can’t be vaccinated through no fault of their own. With our actions today, we can help avoid future outbreaks of vaccine-preventable illnesses like measles,” reads a message posted on the New York State government website from State Senator Brad Hoylman, who sponsored the bill to remove religious exemptions.

Disputes over the new law came to a head in July, when 55 New York families, including one family from Onteora, filed a class-action lawsuit against New York State, Governor Cuomo, and Attorney General Letitia James, for what they allege are violations of first amendment religious freedoms. 

Many of the families challenging the state in court are from Orthodox Jewish communities in Brooklyn and Rockland County, where rates of unvaccinated people are highest and where measles outbreaks have been concentrated. 

But why is Onteora’s rate of completely vaccinated students lower than many other public schools in the state? Onteora School Board President Laurie Osmond said it might have to do with location. “I think this area, and Woodstock in particular, draws people who are nonconformist, and that can take many different shapes. I think it’s known as an area that celebrates individuality, leans to the left, and has a long history of being sort of anti-establishment,” she said.

Onteora’s rate of completely vaccinated students for the 2017-2018 school year was 91.2%, according to the New York State Department of Health. The herd immunity threshold, or the percentage of immune people needed to stop the transmission of measles, is between 93 and 95%, according to the World Health Organization.

Camps, jobs, local health care providers

For parents, the impact of choosing not to vaccinate goes beyond their children’s schooling. Certain summer camps have responded to New York measles outbreaks by disallowing religious exemptions for immunizations. There is currently a bill pending in the New York State Senate that would mandate the discontinuation of religious exemptions for all children’s camps. 

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This came as a surprise for A., who found out her children could not attend camp at the end of the school year. “I started a new job in June, and I hadn’t planned on having my kids home all summer. I’m really lucky that my job is flexible, but that’s huge for people,” she said.

Further, the Pediatrics department of CareMount Medical, the local healthcare conglomerate, states that they “retain the right to opt out of providing care and taking responsibility for the health of children whose parents uniformly and unequivocally refuse to vaccinate them,” according to a policy posted on their website.

A. did not express concern at the idea of a measles outbreak in the area. “I feel pretty confident that even if my kids got measles that we could deal with that. I know it can be deadly, but so can the flu and pneumonia,” she said.

Other vaccine-related legislation has recently been introduced into the New York State Senate. One bill would enable children aged 14 or older to provide informed consent to certain vaccinations without parental consent. Currently, New York State law only allows minors to seek reproductive and mental health services, as well as substance abuse aid, independent from their parents. 

The true effect of the new law and bills in progress remains to be seen. According to School Board President Osmond, the district has not yet heard back from most families about their decisions to either vaccinate their children or homeschool them. 

“I don’t know what the full implication will be yet,” said Superintendent McLaren.

Home schooling responsibilities

Another aspect of student non-attendance at the school is the necessity of home schooling in lieu of full day classes for those not vaccinated, something that has to be monitored by Onteora, or any district in which the students reside. 

“We collect their plans, we collect documentation of their work that they have done at home, and see that they’re fulfilling their requirements,” said McLaren. “We don’t necessarily make judgments about the curriculum they are following. They have to follow the requirements as laid out by the state. As long as they submit their paperwork to us to show they are providing that, it’s OK.”

If the work isn’t done, the district is bound to report it to Ulster County’s Child Protective Services (CPS) bureau. 

“We are mandated reporters,” said McLaren. “We would try to work with them first. Calling CPS is not anyone’s preferred path. But I don’t believe that any of these families that are being affected by this new requirement are families who don’t take education seriously, and do want the best for their kids. Our responsibility is to work with the families and CPS to insure that children are getting educated.” 

McLaren said that as of the end of June the district had about 45 home schooled students.

Is there more of a burden on the administration? 

“It will be additional work,” McLaren said. “It’s certainly additional work for our nursing staff. They have been in touch with families to explain the requirements. There are families whose children were partially immunized and for some reason have not completed, some who had not immunized at all, have begun or completed the process. And there are some who have decided not to immunize at all. Our job is to work with all the families in the district.” 

McLaren added, “I know there are a lot of families that work through [home schooling] on their own, there are others who participate in online curriculums.” 

And if they don’t?

“Those kind of consequences are out of our hands. If they don’t do it, it falls to CPS.”

Brian Hollander contributed to this story. 


Anti-vaccination suit denied

A complaint filed in the Eastern District of New York, United States District Court seeking a preliminary injunction asking for an immediate restoration of the religious exemption that would allow those using it to have their children attend school in September without being immunized for mumps, measles, diptheria and hepatitis B has been denied. 

In a decision filed August 19 by United States District Judge Allyne Ross, the court concluded that “Mandatory vaccination laws are a permissible use of state police power, and states are free to pass laws that mandate compliance with immunizations requirements,” and that the Plaintiffs, noted as V.D., et al., “are not entitled to a preliminary injunction because they have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits.” 

The lawsuit, according to politico.com, “which named Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Attorney General Tish James and state education officials as defendants, is the second legal challenge brought by the advocacy group Children’s Health Defense in an attempt to overturn the new vaccination law.”

Attorney Robert F. Kennedy Jr., the chief legal counsel for Children’s Health Defense, “was in state Supreme Court in Albany last week for oral arguments in the another case, which challenges the vaccination law’s constitutionality.”

Read the entire decision.

There are 13 comments

  1. Bobo Smithson

    Parent-led home-based education is one of the last true freedom spaces for several things. Now it is for medical freedom. What nations allow the State (civil government) to force/coerce injections into a person’s body without that person’s consent? Only tyrannical ones and the ones who decide that “the group” shall dominate the individual or family.

    It is no wonder that parent-led, home-based, not-tax-funded education (homeschooling) is growing amongst a diversity of people – dark- and light-skinned; rich and poor; urban and rural; high- and low-income; Hindu, Jew, agnostic, pagan, or Christian – all around the world. The home educated perform better (on average) academically, socially, and into adulthood than those who attend public/government schools (see research below). In the peer-reviewed Journal of School Choice review of only peer-reviewed research, Ray showed (2017) that 78% of the studies found that homeschooled students and graduates performed significantly better than their conventional or institutional school peers and institutional/conventional school students performed significantly better in only 4% of the studies.) Whether the propaganda in State-run schools is leftist, centrist, or rightist; heterosex-only or LGBTQ-ism; socialism, neo-Marxism, or hard-handed capitalism, freedom-loving parents do not want their children indoctrinated by the State. Whether it is about medical freedom (i.e., no coerced/forced injections into children’s bodies) or too many lice, it is freedom.

    However, the statists, control-lovers, elitists, and the NEA teachers’ union will not rest, and are hard at work across the USA and in other nations to further control home-based education or co-opt it with tax-funded school-at-home programs. Face reality and think about it: The Nazis [National Socialists] banned homeschooling and Germany still does. “There was considerable concern among Nazi educational leaders that Protestant and Catholic children had been separated into denominational schools. In the Nazi state “such a division—separation in to different schools according to religious belief—cannot continue. ….. Children should be together in order to understand appreciate the further unit of the community, our Volk.” (Pine, 2010, pp. 28–29). Controllers, elitists, and tyrants do not like the freedom of parent-led home-based education, homeschooling. See research at www.nheri.org

    1. Reason

      No one is “forcing” anyone to be vaccinated, it is still a choice. However, the choice the parent is making, will come with consequences, as all choices do. If, you choose too not protect your child, and the rest of mankind, because of ignorant religious choices, then live with that choice. I believe, that if a person does not freely admit too vaccinating themselves, then they should not only be kept from public education, but all public places, as not too cause epidemic, or pandemic. In the United States there is a separation of church and state, so all those religious objections too vaccinating, are null and void, and hold no value, nor weight in the halls of our great nations government. So, vaccinate, or stay home, that is your constitutional choice. It is just that easy, and not even worth the argument; you are either for all of mankind, or blinded by religious zeal, and so self centric, that you are willing to have innocents risk sickness and possible death, because you feel that your faith makes you somehow, “closer” too god, then those others, whom you will put in jeopardy by your ignorant, pidgeon-holed religious based decision. Ultimately forcing the consequences of your ignorant choices, and your silly religions on the rest of us, who disagree with you using educated knowledge. How despicable all you religious nuts are, trying too make the majority cajole too your silly ignorant belief’s, putting all mankind at risk, how pitiful. This is a free nation, you are allowed to practice any of the fictitious religions of man, that you wish, without persecution, however, that right ends, where your belief’s meet the general public, then you are bound by the laws of the land just like all of us. If you disagree with any of these laws, because of religious reasons, that is your right, but that right ends at the doors of your religious sanctuary, and must be adhered too, once passing that “public” threshold into the majority.

  2. TDM

    It would be useful journalism to provide some links to further educate the readers via current science. While I am not anti-vaccine. I am pro information and questioning when and industry is profit driven. There are numerous studies questioning the validity of herd immunity and the side effects of vaccination in some individuals to long term chronic illnesses. It’s a matter Allowing questions and preserving the right for an individual to be assessed for such risks. To begin The Vaccine adverse effect registry VAERS is a government sponsored list …
    and allowing families to bare the risk to their children without any accountability is simply irresponsible and unjustifiable. Operating under a false sense of security, there is no solid way to avoid all diseases. We make the best efforts possible but we must realize that many vaccines have been released and added to the list of mandatory injections without long term proof of their efficacy or their safety so it’s really not sensible. I wish we could rest in truth that everything created and allowed to be sold were safe and beneficial but we all know that is not true. To walk in this illusion puts an inordinate amount of pressure on a small group of people willing to stand in resistance for the safety and benefit Of ALL.

  3. Bob wheeler

    Herd immunity? Are you friggin insane?!
    The friggin kids get 67+ vaccine doses and the adults get zero,,,,,, when’s the last time you as an adult got booster, hepatitis shots or the tdap??!!

    So much for preventing an epidemic…. mad world

  4. Donna Harris

    Bobo I don’t give a rat’s patootie where your kids are schooled. I do hope all children will be vaccinated against diseases that do not need to exist.

  5. Lady M

    I am sorry to say that this article is a pathetic excuse for journalism and I know this region deserves much better than this un-researched, pre-digested and pre-written article. It is obvious that the state legislation which is being passed in an effort to restrict personal rights regarding vaccination, is not based on independent science but IS based on government controlled by pharmaceutical profiteers. If vaccination requirements were actually based on independent science, then they would be uniform across all states and all nations. Vaccination exception options vary significantly across states and vaccination requirements vary significantly across nations. Real, verifiable science does not vary significantly according to geography. What does vary is the extent of the stranglehold that pharmaceutical interests have over law-makers in different regions of the country or of the world.

    Those who are protecting their human rights, according to the Nuremberg Code, by keeping control of what is done to their own bodies and to the bodies of their minor children — are NOT the ones who are endangering the health and welfare of others. The ones who ARE endangering the health and welfare of others are those who are keeping the real and independent science about vaccine safety and efficacy from becoming available to the public. Anyone interested in educating themselves can start with www.thehighwire.com and www.nvic.org.

  6. Anna Steinhardt, MD

    I encourage everyone here seeking more information about vaccine safety and science to start with these two short videos:
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SHdzBnblack&feature=share
    https://vimeo.com/356001326?fbclid=IwAR1adnt9JztPJmEjIbReK97sZEVaIQMT2cd_xqCWqxr5_LipwCFFwZ8GehM
    Ask questions, do your own research, and refrain from insults, especially if you have not directly read the peer-reviewed science yourself. Here’s a great place to start in order to learn the essential fact that unvaccinated children do not pose a health risk to others: https://physiciansforinformedconsent.org/news/physicians-for-informed-consent-sends-letter-to-medical-board-of-california-regarding-science-and-sb-276-limiting-medical-exemptions-to-vaccination/.
    Respectfully, Anna Steinhardt, MD

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