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Long Island schools alert parents, guardians to changes in immunization rules

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a new law

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo signed a new law on June 13 that does not allow a religious exemption from immunization for children to attend public, private and parochial schools or in day care settings and summer camps. Credit: PA Wire/Gareth Fuller

The word is going out Islandwide: Public and private school officials are alerting parents and guardians about stricter immunization requirements for children, stemming from the recent and controversial change in state law that removed the ability to claim exemption from vaccines because of religious beliefs.

School districts are posting information on their websites, giving the time frames and deadlines under the law for vaccinations to be obtained, and communicating directly with families who previously sought the exemption for their children. The law also applies to child-care providers.

“The initial reaction on the part of many districts was to notify the staff who would be responsible for ensuring compliance — and especially getting the nurses up to speed,” said Bernadette Burns, superintendent of the West Islip school district and president of the Suffolk County School Superintendents Association. “To ensure we were consistent, many of us composed a letter that we shared among ourselves to notify those parents who needed to address the issues with their children.”

The change in the law, which took effect immediately after it was signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo on June 13, came amid the worst measles outbreak in the nation in 27 years — with many of the cases occurring in New York State and concentrated in Brooklyn and in Rockland County. At the time of the bill-signing, Cuomo's office noted that 96 percent of school-age children statewide already were inoculated against measles, mumps and rubella. 

The requirements include a number of other immunizations, such as those against diphtheria; tetanus; pertussis, also known as whooping cough; and varicella, commonly called chickenpox.

Now, the only basis upon which a child may be exempted is if a licensed New York State physician certifies that there is a medical reason why the child should not be immunized.

Some time frames also were altered. The law mandates that parents and guardians provide proof of children's immunization within 14 days after the first day of instruction, which for most Long Island districts typically falls in September, shortly after Labor Day. Further, within 30 days of the first day of school, parents and guardians of those children must show that they have scheduled appointments for required follow-up doses.

"Until June 30, 2020, children can attend school as long as they have received the first age-appropriate dose in each immunization series no more than 14 days after the first day of school and can show within 30 days after the first day of school that they have scheduled appointments for all required follow-up doses," said Jill Montag, spokeswoman for the state Department of Health. "By June 30, 2020, the children who had or would have had religious exemptions should be fully vaccinated according to the catch-up schedule, so students without medical exemptions will not be able to attend school after that date without being fully vaccinated."

In late July, the state Education Department, the state Department of Health and the Office of Children and Family Services sent further clarifications on the law to educators and day care providers. Those directions spelled out that the requirements also cover children in day care settings, summer school and year-round school and stated, "Religious exemptions are no longer valid in New York State."

In addition, counties and individual camps have the authority to require vaccination for summer camps, according to the Health Department.

New York joins California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia in eliminating the religious exemption. Statewide in the 2017-18 school year, 26,217 students — about 0.80 percent — in public, private and parochial schools, child-care centers, nursery schools and prekindergarten programs claimed religious exemption to one or more required immunizations, according to the Health Department. More recent figures were not available.

The change in the law has been controversial, with defenders of the religious exemption saying that ending it violates the right to freedom of religion. Advocates for parents who are opposed to the new requirements say some are considering home schooling their children or moving out of state.

At least one group, the Georgia-based nonprofit group Children's Health Defense, has taken legal action in federal court, saying the change in vaccination requirements violates the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act and must be halted. The organization earlier filed a lawsuit in state Supreme Court in Albany challenging the constitutionality of the law on the grounds that it abridges religious freedom. Both lawsuits are pending.

Nicholas Stirling, president of the Nassau County Council of Superintendents and schools chief of the Valley Stream 30 district, said local education officials all have been made aware of the change and started alerting parents soon after the law was signed. Districts have received “good communication" from the state to help inform parents and the community about the requirements, he said.

The Valley Stream 30 district, like several on Long Island, has sent letters to parents whose children have had a religious exemption. Stirling estimated that is a handful of parents in his system.

“We encourage you to make efforts to obtain the necessary certificate or other acceptable evidence of immunization as soon as possible so that your child(ren) may continue to attend school,” the letter read.

Candace Gomez, an attorney based in Garden City who advises many school districts on legal issues, said educators have moved quickly to notify parents of the change. She noted that the new requirement applied to students attending summer school, so district officials had to act fast.

“We know that there are certain groups who are pushing back against this change in the law,” Gomez said. “But in light of the recent measles outbreaks that have impacted communities across the nation, and even nearby in Brooklyn, I think the landscape has changed and parents are understanding the importance of vaccinations. For that reason, school districts have not experienced as much resistance to the law as some would have anticipated.”

Some school districts have taken a multipronged approach to alerting parents.

The William Floyd district, based in Mastic Beach, notified parents of 77 students there who earlier had religious exemption from vaccinations. School nurses at the relevant individual schools then contacted parents by letter and, if necessary, by phone to advise which shots are required for school attendance. The district also posted the new requirements on its website. A spokesman said he had not heard of any parents pulling their children out of the system because the religious exemption has been dropped.

However, Rita Palma, a Blue Point parent and longtime advocate who is a founding officer of the New York chapter of Children's Health Defense, said parents who have had religious exemptions for their children are "in a state of unbelievable panic."

A recent forum in Huntington on how to home-school children drew hundreds of parents, she said, and several parents of children with special needs say they have not received clear information from school officials or the state.

Some are considering moving out of state or forming home-school cooperatives, said Palma, 56, who has three children, the youngest of whom is 19. 

"It is full steam ahead for a lot of people in our movement," she said. "We don’t really do the mainstream anything. Why should we do the mainstream in education?"

East Northport parent Gloryvette Rodriguez, 39, has had a religious exemption for her children, an 11-year-old daughter who will be a fifth-grader in September and a 5-year-old son who is scheduled to enter kindergarten. She has looked into home-school cooperatives but is unsure what she will do when classes start. She has been following legal action filed against the law and is hopeful it is successful.

Moving out of state is not an option, she said.

"I am not sure how I am going to go about this. I have met some lovely people and I know there is a lot of options out there. My fifth-grader who is going to middle school is not happy about home schooling," said Rodriguez, who works as a hairdresser. "I have been praying about it and I don’t know what I am going to do just yet. I don’t have the answer."

Parents who home-school must follow requirements set by the state Education Department, including notifying the local school officials, meeting state-approved course requirements, preparing and submitting an individualized home instruction plan, and requiring attendance that is the "substantial equivalent of 180 days of instruction" each school year.

Religious schools, private schools and day care providers have been informing parents of the requirements, too.

Rabbi Tuvia Teldon, regional director for Chabad of Long Island, said, "We are 100 percent onboard in making sure that this is enforced. As we understand it, this is a zero-tolerance policy."

He said the organization notified parents at nine summer camps in Nassau and Suffolk and that four or five families whose children did not have immunizations got the vaccinations, so "that was encouraging." Parents of students who attend Silverstein Hebrew Academy, a Jewish day school in Great Neck, also are being informed of the new law, Tuvia said.

Jennifer Marino Rojas, executive director of the Child Care Council of Suffolk County, said day care providers have contacted parents who have had religious exemptions and that the council's health care consultants have helped providers come into compliance with the new law.

The Waldorf School of Garden City, in a statement, said school leaders there have "been in communication with parents to inform them of the newly implemented New York State law regarding immunization requirements. As we do each year, the administration has also sent detailed information to all parents about what immunizations and medical forms are required before the start of the upcoming school year."

New York's immunization requirements for children in schools and day care

According to the state Department of Health, every student entering or attending public, private or parochial school must be immune to diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, poliomyelitis, hepatitis B, varicella and meningococcal in accordance with recommendations of the national Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices.

Every child in day care, Head Start, nursery school or prekindergarten must be immune to diphtheria, tetanus, pertussis, measles, mumps, rubella, poliomyelitis, hepatitis B, varicella, Haemophilus influenzae type b (Hib), and pneumococcal disease.

Immunization requirements also apply to children of middle school and high school age.

The Health Department's website says full details on school and child-care immunization requirements can be found here.

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