Students who were never vaccinated because of religious or other non-medical objections won’t be able to attend private, public or parochial schools this fall based on a new state law signed on June 13 by Governor Andrew M. Cuomo.
Sag Harbor School District parents were up in arms about the new requirement at a School Board meeting on Monday, and they urged Superintendent Katy Graves to write a letter to various state officials in an effort to give parents more time to find alternatives — such as home-schooling, moving out of state or having their children vaccinated before September.
While the Board of Education voted to allow Ms. Graves to pen such a letter, the idea was ultimately vetoed by the district’s legal counsel, who advised against it. No letter will be sent.
Under the new law, students who had a religious exemption to required immunizations were required to have received the first age-appropriate dose in each immunization series by June 28 in order to attend or remain in school this coming year. Also, by July 14, parents and guardians were required to show that they had made appointments for all required follow-up doses. The deadlines for follow-up doses depend on the vaccine.
The new law was enacted, in part, to address a recent measles epidemic across the country — and particularly in New York State.
According to the State Office of Children and Family Services, the United States is experiencing the worst outbreak of measles cases in more than 25 years, with pockets of the outbreak found in communities in New York. Because of the non-medical exemptions, many communities in New York have unacceptably low rates of vaccinations, according to the state office’s website.
“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. This new law will help protected the pubic amid this ongoing outbreak,” the website says.
According to members of the Sag Harbor School Board, about 35 of the 950-plus students in the district, who had previously filed for the religious or non-medical exemptions, would not be allowed to attend school under the new law next month, unless they were to get vaccinated.
Alex Coulter, a father of two boys at Pierson High School, said his children love the school, and the idea of not returning in the fall because of the repeal of the decades-old religious exemption was “painful” for them.
Mr. Coulter, along with several other parents who spoke at Monday’s meeting, formally asked Ms. Graves to write a letter urging the state to delay implementation of the new law in order to give the families of the estimated 25,000-plus students in the state who carry a religious exemption the time to find a suitable way to educate their children.
California and Maine recently passed legislation much like New York’s, but those states are giving families two years to meet the vaccination requirement, to find other schooling options, or to move out of state.
According to the new legislation, all students entering or attending school must receive immunizations against measles, mumps and rubella — often given in a single MMR shot, followed by a booster — as well as diphtheria, poliomyelitis, tetanus, pertussis, hepatitis B, varicella and meningococcal vaccinations.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, before there was a measles vaccine, hundreds died every year from the disease in the United States. Today, most doctors have never seen a single case of measles.
More than 15,000 Americans died from diphtheria in 1921, before there was a vaccine. Only two cases of diphtheria have been reported to the CDC between 2004 and 2014.
An epidemic of rubella from 1964 to 1965 infected 12.5 million Americans, killed 2,000 infants and caused 11,000 miscarriages, according to the CDC. Since 2012, 15 cases of rubella were reported.
As of August, there had been 653 confirmed cases of measles in New York City since September 2018.
“New York will effectively grant 14 days from the first day of school,” Mr. Coulter said, referring to a grace period allowed by the new policy, as he handed the board a half dozen letters written by superintendents and principals from other districts across New York, including the relatively nearby districts of Riverhead and East Islip.
Mr. Coulter said religion is an important part of his life, noting that he is a member of St. Ann’s Episcopal Church in Bridgehampton, and that he and his children were baptized in keeping with orthodox tradition. “Anything we inject into our bodies should remain our choice,” he said.
Gayle Eckey, a Sag Harbor resident and parent of one child who has already graduated from Pierson, as well as two younger children in the district, said that her children had their access to education taken away from them in the matter of eight hours — the time it took for the bill to be approved by the State Legislature and signed by the Gov. Cuomo.
“Eight hours, this bill went through the Assembly, through the Senate, and was off Governor Cuomo’s desk, signed,” she said, adding that parents and districts were blindsided by the new legislation.
Ms. Eckey said it’s put her family in a rough position, both emotionally and financially. “Emotionally, because now we’re being forced to choose between our deeply held religious convictions and public education. Financially, because now we have to figure out how do we do this? We’re a local family. My husband is a carpenter. We both need to be working.”
Michele Liot, a Sag Harbor resident who was homeschooled from sixth through 12th grade for religious reasons, told the board that she’s concerned that the new law infringes on the community’s religious freedom.
Ms. Liot said that for any of the orthodox religious communities, some beliefs ask followers not to ingest certain things into their bodies. “We actually just stood and pledged our allegiance to the flag and talked about one nation under God. One of the things that’s being challenged in this moment is just that,” she said.
Alexandra McLaughlin, a lifelong Sag Harbor resident with two young children not in the district yet, said that the families were not asking the district to share their beliefs, but to write a letter — which would be sent to the Honorable Judge Denise A. Hartman, acting justice of the State Supreme Court, and the Board of Regents — asking the state to give the parents more time to figure out their options.
“This is not necessarily going to erase the law,” Ms. Graves told the parents regarding writing a letter to the state, “but it may put a pause to the law, allowing families to make the decision.”
The board voted, 4-1, with Jordana Sobey opposing, to send a letter to the state, asking for a longer grace period.
Ms. Sobey said she was moved by the parents but explained that it showed only one side of the argument. “I want to do my own research first,” she said. “I’m not prepared to support it just yet.”
After speaking with the district’s legal counsel on Tuesday following the board meeting, Ms. Graves said the advice was against writing the letter. She explained that, as a public school, the district must uphold state law.
“I’m very sad not to be able to support these families. My heart goes out to them,” she said over the phone on Tuesday afternoon. “My responsibility remains to protect the school district,” she said, adding that the district’s legal counsel formally informed her that writing a letter would put the district at risk.
According to the legal counsel, there are children in the district who are medically compromised and can’t receive immunizations, and having unvaccinated children enter the district could harm those students.
“Even though I was authorized to write a letter by the board, I still have to act as superintendent,” Ms. Graves said. “I respect our legal counsel and the concerns they’ve put forward.”