Some New Paltz parents upset about tone of letter regarding vaccinations

Some parents who have been trying to bring their children into compliance with new state vaccination requirements arrived at the September 18 New Paltz school board meeting tearful and angry because of a late-night email warning some of them that their children could be arrested for trespassing if they showed up at school the next day. According to Christina Vazquez, the email was received 10 p.m. Monday night. The message made it clear to her, she said, that school administrators “don’t care about us.”

In response to a measles outbreak in Rockland County, New York State lawmakers eliminated the religious exemption to vaccines and set an implementation schedule much shorter than the one adopted when  California removed the philosophical exemption was removed in 2015. The short transition left some parents scrambling for alternatives. Others, like Vazquez, have been trying to keep their children enrolled in public school. 

The email was seen as harsh and uncaring, and schools superintendent Maria Rice acknowledged she “should have vetted it” after it was drafted by an attorney.

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The schedule for compliance also continues to generate confusion. Parents at the meeting claimed that the district’s requirements are actually more stringent than what’s required under the law, which is to have had the first of each of five vaccines by September 16 and present a schedule of booster shots by the end of June 2020. Vazquez told trustees that she and others are being asked to update vaccination records after each shot, which she believes is not a state requirement.

Parent Jen Sullivan said that she had gotten contradictory information from school officials about how to comply with the new rules. The stress was only compounded by an email that “could be more sensitive.”

Others also called out its tone as harsh and uncaring.

“I understand the pain that you are going through,” said board president Kathy Preston. While district officials can’t change the law, she said, they can improve how they communicate.

Bianca Tanis wondered if changing the law was really the issue. “Are we going above” what was actually required, she wondered.

Rice believes that this is not the case. The regulations were reviewed by the district’s doctor, and are “really rigid and stringent” in their requirements, with medical exemptions being “almost impossible.”  An extra nurse was brought in to review records for the roughly 125 students whose exemptions under the old law had been eliminated. New Paltz has more impacted students than other area districts, the superintendent added. 

Tanis continued to push, seeking to confirm whether the catch-up schedule issued by health officials might be in conflict with the law in some way.

Sophia Skiles, recognizing the “frantic moment” into which these parents have been placed, imagined a more child-focused approach. Instead of listing consequences, the district might help find answers to open questions, such as whether the district was obligated to provide tutoring as it does for children with a long-term illness. One parent present did describe one of her children as “vaccine-injured” and unable to attend school if further shots were required. 

Rice said that there was an ethical obligation to provide that support, but not a legal one. The state change had been passed without consulting educators, she noted..

Michael O’Donnell called state lawmakers “complicit here in rolling this out in a disastrous way,” and echoed Tanis’ view that It was better to let a particular child remain in school where ambiguity exists. Preston agreed, saying that she would be satisfied if there were a clear intent to comply with the law. The penalties for ignoring the law are fines of $2000 per day per child. Rice agreed to notify her team immediately of the change.

The school board discussed other matters at the same meeting.

Civil disobedience in the 21st century appears to be more civil than it is disobedient. School board trustees approved a plan to accommodate students planning on attending the climate strike scheduled for later in the week. Under the plan developed by superintendent Maria Rice, parents would have to submit signed permission slips in order to receive an excused absence for a child. Middle schoolers would also have to be picked up by one of their designated adults. 

High-school students have more leeway in signing themselves out of the building, but board members were unable to honor a last-minute request to provide a bus to get them to the gathering site just off school property. As a number of parents had already contacted Rice about the event, it appeared that they largely bought into the idea that getting permission to participate in something called “a strike” was the best course of action. 

In that way, it was reminiscent of last year’s “march for our lives” event, billed as “a walkout,” to protest gun violence in schools. The New Paltz event had taken place entirely on school property surrounded by a cordon of watchful police officers. After they had their say, the students had dutifully filing back inside.

School board attorney Margot May explained how police will act when on campus. State law now explicitly establishes that police officers do not deal with discipline in school settings, and must refer such matters to administrators. However, that doesn’t preclude a parent from filing a police complaint about an incident, which then proceeds like any other such investigation.

On the other hand, the attorney said, if officers become involved when there’s a risk of harm, they will “do whatever they have to do” to ensure the safety of members of the school community.

Rice concurred, There would be “no negotiation” if, for example, a gun was present.

Under the intergovernmental agreement between the town and school district, both parties are held harmless should a lawsuit be filed due to the actions of one or more town or district employees.

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