Vaccinate, Homeschool Or Leave New York: Unvaccinated Families Scramble To Decide As School Year Approaches

One of Dr. Nadia Persheff's patients, Lorena Ortolan, received three vaccine shots on Monday, one for measles, mumps and rubella, one for varicella and one for meningitis. ANISAH ABDULLAH

Michele Liot was not planning to vaccinate her 5-year-old son, Dax Dacuk, before enrolling him in kindergarten at Sag Harbor Elementary School this fall. Dax had a religious exemption.

But once lawmakers in Albany eliminated that exemption provision in June, Ms. Liot and her husband, Jason Dacuk, were forced to rethink the decision.

Ms. Liot holds a strong belief in bodily autonomy and felt uncomfortable with the components of vaccines and their possible side effects, fearing seizures and other health complications — not a fear of developing autism, as the stigma maintains — noting that her son’s exemption was based more on philosophy than religion.

But the married couple set beliefs aside and vaccinated Dax so that he could attend school.

“It’s been a pretty tumultuous and rough experience for us to get to that point. I was very uncomfortable making that decision, very distressed when I heard that my religious exemption was being revoked,” said Ms. Liot, a labor and delivery nurse at Stony Brook University Hospital.

She is one of many local parents who have had about two and a half months to choose whether to vaccinate their children against their beliefs, home-school them, or move to another state where the exemption is still an option.

A Legal Battle

On June 13, both chambers of the State Legislature voted to remove the religious exemption stipulation for vaccinations from state public health law as a response to a recent measles outbreak that saw more than 1,000 confirmed cases, primarily in New York City and Rockland County. Governor Andrew M. Cuomo signed it into law hours later, immediately limiting the educational options for about 26,000 unvaccinated children within the state. New York is the fifth state to prohibit religious exemptions.

The law states that in order for a child to remain enrolled in school, parents must prove, within the first 14 days of school, that the child received at least the first dose of each required vaccination series, based on a child’s age. Within the first 30 days of school, families must show that they have appointments scheduled for future doses.

This law applies to all schools, including public, private and parochial schools, as well as day care centers and nurseries. Medical exemptions — if it can be proven that the vaccination would harm the child — are still permitted under state law.

Parents challenged the new law in State Supreme Court in Albany, hoping to see it overturned or at least delayed. Locally, many families awaited Justice Denise Hartman’s decision before making their own choices.

The judgment was not in their favor. On Friday, Justice Hartman rejected a request for a preliminary injunction and upheld the law. She previously had ruled against a request for a temporary restraining order.

Schools Reach Out

Children attending schools in the state are required to be immunized against poliomyelitis, mumps, measles, rubella, diphtheria, varicella (known as chickenpox), Haemophilus influenzae type b (known as Hib), pertussis, tetanus, pneumococcal disease, hepatitis B and meningococcal disease — a total of eight vaccination series. The meningococcal disease series typically starts later, at 11 to 12 years old.

New York follows the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s recommended vaccination schedule. Children who start late and need to catch up are recommended to wait weeks or even months in between doses, and the number of doses varies depending on when they start.

Nearly all of the South Fork’s 15 school districts have children who claimed religious exemptions before the law was amended, forcing district administrators to field calls throughout the summer from concerned parents who are now unsure of what their children’s future holds. They notified affected families days after the law went into effect.

The East Hampton School District has approximately 1,800 students, and nine of them had a religious exemption. District staff hand-delivered letters to affected families to ensure that they were aware of the change as soon as possible, according to Cindy Allentuck, the district’s director of pupil personnel services.

Ms. Allentuck said that out of those involved, three families got their children immunized and two others decided to send their children to schools in other states. Some parents asked her questions about the law and the state’s vaccination schedule, and she has yet to hear back from two other families, she said.

Other local school districts had even higher numbers, albeit a small fraction of the total student population. Westhampton Beach had 26 students approved for religious exemptions, out of its 1,798 students, and Southampton had 25 out of its 1,512 students.

Westhampton Beach Superintendent Michael Radday said he was unsure of the route each of the families in his district were choosing, but empathized with each of them, as he knew it was a tough decision.

‘A Horrible Summer’

Private and parochial schools, which generally have higher percentages of unvaccinated students, could potentially lose a chunk of their enrollment if families look elsewhere.
During the 2017-18 school year, about a third of the students at Hayground School in Bridgehampton and Southampton Montessori School had religious exemptions, according to data from the State Department of Health.

“These parents are very upset and they’ve had a horrible summer,” Marcelle Langendal, Hayground’s faculty chair, said. “It’s been a really tough time for them, so we are very supportive in being empathetic about what they’re going through.”

Hayground faculty members wrote a letter in support of their families and sent it to Justice Hartman while she was still deciding whether to grant an injunction to delay its effective date.

At Our Lady of the Hamptons School, a parochial school in Southampton Village, five of its 320 students had a religious exemption. Sister Kathy Schlueter, the principal of OLH since 1987, said she spoke with two of the three affected families, and both of them have withdrawn their children because they refuse to get them immunized.

“There’s absolutely nothing that I can do. We’re a Catholic school, we’re a private school, but we’re also part of the state, and we’re part of the diocese, and we have to answer to our authorities, too,” Sister Kathy said — adding that Catholicism does not teach anti-vaccination practices.

In fact, no major religion requires adherents to abstain from vaccinations, though some Christian denominations and certain Orthodox rabbis have offered stricter interpretations of religious law where vaccinations are concerned.

Hands Are Tied

The head of Long Island’s home-school community, Teresa Loos, said she has been getting a lot of inquiries from families with unvaccinated children since the law was changed. She has also spoken to several local parents who said they are choosing to pull their kids out of school.

Teresa Loos hosted a Homeschooling 101 at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor on August 21. MICHAEL HELLER

“All of Suffolk County is getting a large rise in home-schoolers,” Ms. Loos said, stressing that parents choose to home-school for a number of reasons, vaccination preferences being only one of them. “We are getting a bigger inflow than we’ve been getting in the past two years right now. There’s a lot of people joining the group. A good portion of them are because of the religious exemption.”

Ms. Loos held a talk called “Home Schooling 101” at the John Jermain Memorial Library in Sag Harbor on August 21 prompted by the inquiries she was receiving. She explained the basics of home schooling, including curriculum materials, how families can sign up, and rules and regulations, to a group of about 20 people.

Several parents in the Sag Harbor School District spoke at recent Board of Education meeting about their opposition to vaccinating their children and their anxieties moving forward, Ms. Liot being one of them.

They urged Superintendent of Schools Katy Graves to write a letter to state officials requesting more time for parents of the district’s 35 unvaccinated kids to find educational alternatives. The School Board approved writing the letter, but Ms. Graves ultimately refused to do so under advisement of the district’s legal counsel.

Ms. Graves’s hands were tied, like all other superintendents, as districts must comply with state regulations.

Mad Scramble

Parents who are making the choice to vaccinate their children for the first time are reaching out to local pediatrician offices. The sudden influx has been overwhelming pediatricians, who are already inundated by the back-to-school rush they get every year.

Dr. Nadia Persheff, who owns Hampton Pediatrics in Southampton, frequently has back-to-back vaccination appointments. On Monday, every half hour or so, she opened the door from inside a patient’s room, yelled, “Vaccine!” and one of her nurses responded to prepare a tray of needles, vials and colorful bandages.

“I can’t get my other patients in because of these patients. It’s very, very insane this year because of it,” Dr. Persheff said. “The hours are longer. I had a parent call me up at 11:45 at night anxious about vaccines.”

Ms. Liot has been taking Dax to Hampton Pediatrics to get his five vaccine shots needed to start school. He will need 10 more to be fully compliant with state requirements, she said.

In East Hampton, Dr. Gail Schonfeld, the managing physician and owner of East End Pediatrics, shares a different view of vaccinations from Dr. Persheff. Her practice is known to not accept patients who do not comply with vaccination requirements. So for those looking to start now, Dr. Schonfeld said she does not believe they will reach out to her.

“I’m not the practice that they’re going to come to for this, but we’ve made sure that we’ve had ample supply in case people ask,” Dr. Schonfeld said. “We’re doing the best we can to put some time aside to be prepared.”

She explained that other local pediatricians are taking the same stance as her, therefore limiting the places that unvaccinated families can go for their children’s health care.

“It’s really an issue because I think they, then, do not have a medical home and they can sometimes avoid routine checkups, where this becomes a topic of discussion,” the physician said. “They’re not getting the same type of preventative health care.”

Feeling The Stress

The anxiety felt among undecided families is growing stronger as the first day of school nears.

Alex Coulter is the father of two boys, 14 and 16, who attended Pierson High School and played on school sports teams while having religious exemptions. He and his family took a vacation to Maine last week to escape the stress of New York’s new restriction.

Mr. Coulter said he is still unsure of what to do about his sons’ education — a little over a week before Pierson High School students return to school — but stands firm that they will not be getting immunized.

“We will either home-school or send our kids to school out of state,” he wrote in an email late Monday night, after returning from the trip. “The former is impractical, the latter is expensive. There goes the college fund!”

Mr. Coulter believes in bodily autonomy, like Ms. Liot, as well as religious freedom. He and his sons are baptized into the Christian Orthodox Church, which he said teaches that parents should have the right to make informed decisions about the health of their children and not be subjected to any outside pressure.

Unvaccinated families may be upset at Albany lawmakers for the bill’s passing, but local representatives are not to blame. Both Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. and Senator Kenneth P. LaValle voted against the measure, which received almost divided votes in both chambers.

Mr. Thiele said he voted against the bill not for philosophical reasons, but because he thought it “went too far” by completely removing the religious exemption provision, as he believes there is a legitimate role for such exemptions throughout the country.

“If there was the feeling that religious exemptions were being granted too easily, or that there were issues with the current process, I certainly would’ve been supportive and would’ve looked at possible ways to amend the law or look for greater safeguards to make sure that it’s a legitimate religious exemption,” the assemblyman said.

Mr. LaValle could not be reached for comment.

Ms. Liot chose not to vaccinate her 2-year-old daughter, Aurora Dacuk, in the hope that the law is overturned before her daughter is old enough to start attending school.

“I’m only going forward with my school-aged son in order to be a law-abiding citizen, if you will,” she said.