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.
“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.
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.”