Parents fight for delay on vaccination law

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A small but determined group of parents implored the Shelter Island Board of Education Monday night to support an effort to delay implementation of a new state mandate requiring children to be immunized against a number of communicable diseases.

In a written statement read Monday night by Superintendent Brian Doelger after the parents had spoken, he said the legislation passed in June gave students and parents 14 days after the first day of school to comply with the new vaccination regulations. The deadline to have their children vaccinated was Wednesday, Sept. 18, or they would be, according to the law, denied entrance to school.

(On Wednesday morning, Mr. Doelger said no children had been turned away, but it was unclear what decisions some parents had made on sending their children to school. The Reporter will continue to follow the story.)

Rules affecting the privacy of students’ health status prevents a small district from giving out a number on how many students would be affected by the requirement this week. But one of the parents mentioned that about 10 students would be immediately affected, while more were likely to resist as they learned about the immunizations.

Parents of students throughout the state have been bringing suit in courts to delay implementation of the legislation that stripped them of the right to exempt their children from vaccines for religious reasons.

Sarah Shepherd told the board she went to school on Shelter Island, as had generations of her family, but now her daughter, who had just won election as president of her class, was being told she wouldn’t be allowed back to school as of Wednesday.

“I got a piece of paper dismissing my daughter,” said Ms. Shepherd, a single working mother. Through tears, she told the board that because of the ruling, her daughter wouldn’t be able to return to the school she called the “heart of the community.”

“Please tell me what you’re going to do,” said mother Kate Topliff. “The state has an obligation to educate my daughter.”

“We are not anti-vaxers, we are parents,” Ms. Topliff added, calling the “anti-vax” moniker a media invention that makes resisting the immunizations seem like a political movement instead of health concerns by parents who believe they have the right to determine what is best for their children.

“None of us want to be in this position,” Mr. Doelger said. During the summer, after meeting with several of the parents whose children weren’t immunized, and speaking with his board, he wrote a letter to a state supreme court judge in Albany supporting a delay in implementing the legislation.

He subsequently learned the letter couldn’t be entered into the record by the judge, but had to be sent to attorneys fighting for the delay to be entered into the record. Mr. Doelger said he consulted with the Island school district’s attorney before re-addressing that letter. He’s still awaiting word on his rights, he said Tuesday.

“We felt we really did advocate for them,” Mr. Doelger said about supporting the parents’ request for a delay.

Ms. Topliff said she had religious exemptions for her children for 16 years, but was now being told that was no longer an acceptable reason not to be vaccinated.

She talked about children in the school being traumatized by bullying from their classmates because they were going to be stopped from attending school.

“This is a terrible situation, but we are compelled to follow the law,” Mr. Doelger said.
“Our district and Board of Education is sympathetic to the needs of all of our families, It is also, obviously, the goal … that all of our students receive a public education …The board allowed me to write to the judge seeking a stay in order to give families more time to comply with the law.”

The district, through nurse Mary Kanarvogel, has been “very proactive in informing the parents of the new requirements beginning last June as soon as the law was passed down,” Mr. Doelger said. “We have followed up with several letters and phone calls to make sure all parents were aware of the situation. While we are extremely sympathetic to the situation this puts our families in, we, along with every other district, must follow the law passed.”

In answer to a question Tuesday morning, Mr. Doelger said he and Ms. Kanarvogel could be subject to fines of $2,000 each for every violation of the new law per student.

For that reason, the district couldn’t defy the new law, he said. Although children such as the Topliffs had a religious exemption, the overriding reason others said they objected was concern about the safety of various vaccines and a belief that the law was passed to serve interests of pharmaceutical companies, not the health of their children.

“My children’s lives are on the line,” Ms. Topliff said.

Although the faces of board members showed concern as they listened to the parents, none spoke. Mr. Doelger said they were free to express their opinions, but having consulted with them in advance, he felt obligated to speak on their behalf.

Mr. Doelger said it was true that any of the banned students would be free to attend activities at the school that are open to the public, such as sporting events. Also, nothing in the law requires that teachers and other staff members prove they have been immunized and received boosters if necessary. Nor is any visitor to the school asked about their health history or vaccinations. Nor has there been any case in the school of a student without immunizations becoming ill and affecting other students, Mr. Doelger said.

The Reporter contacted some parents of students who have been immunized for their reactions to the new law. Some agreed to comment, while other did not. Victoria Weslek said she had her children vaccinated after considering options and discussing the issue with their pediatrician.

“I feel so bad for families who have chosen not to vaccinate and the position they find themselves in today,” Ms. Weslek said. She termed the state’s rollout of the new law “extremely unfair,” adding it left families “in an “untenable position.”

Those families have been “outed” in terms of their health histories and decisions and “scapegoated,” Ms. Weslek said. “I think the right to an education is paramount and one that has been undermined by an overreaction by the state.”

At the same time, she doesn’t blame school officials because they have to follow the law.

On the other hand, Bert Waife — who has two children enrolled in 5th and 9th grades — said he supports the science behind the requirement to immunize children and that science should be the community standard and enforced.

Assemblyman Fred Thiele Jr. (I-Sag Harbor) said the state law, which he voted against, “went too far” by repealing religious exemptions.

“This is a matter of personal and parental rights, and repealing the religious exemption infringes upon those rights for many New Yorkers who wish to exercise legitimate, sincerely held religious beliefs,” the legislator said.

He added that the transition period for implementing the new law was inadequate.

“Schools should have been given much more time and flexibility in order to effectively implement the repeal,” the legislator said.