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Islanders react to state immunization law; BOE members weigh in on divisive issue

In a small community, where family and friends often go back generations, people are reluctant to comment about a controversy that is dividing the Island — the new state law banning children from public, private and parochial schools who have not been vaccinated.

Most members of the Board of Education said they were reluctant to speak, choosing instead to defer to comments made at the Sept. 16 meeting by Superintendent Brian Doelger.

At that meeting, the superintendent issued a statement two days before non-immunized students were to be banned from school. He said the Board of Education is sympathetic to those families with children who would be unable to send them to school as of Sept. 18, noting it is the goal of the district to provide an education to all students.

He described his approach as being “proactive” in reaching out to a judge hearing a case upstate seeking to delay implementation of the law to give families time to make plans to either home school their children or make other arrangements for their education.

The following day, he noted that he and school nurse Mary Kanarvogel could be fined up to $2,000 per incident and per student if they allowed non-immunized students to attend classes.

Mr. Doelger told the Reporter this week that four children were affected by the ban. None of the parents sent them to school so there was no need to send anyone home. One of the parents said at least 10 children were affected by the new law.

“It was definitely a sad day for us at school,” the superintendent said. “I obviously hope to have the students back at school when things are worked out. And I’ll do all I can to help them with resources while they are not here.”

He reiterated that this is a state law the district is “compelled to comply with.”

The Centers for Disease Control have issued statements encouraging parents to have children immunized to protect them from infection and prevent the spread of diseases like rubella to pregnant women and unborn babies as well as others unable to be vaccinated because of various health conditions.

School Board members were silent at the meeting, but Board President Kathleen Lynch and member Linda Eklund responded to requests to go on the record this week.

Ms. Lynch said board members don’t want to offer personal opinions or engage in philosophical debates, but agree with Mr. Doelger’s statement issued at the meeting.

“We really just wanted to afford those parents the opportunity to be heard,” Ms. Lynch said about the parents of non-immunized students. “The position that every school district in New York has been placed in is unfortunate. Anytime we are forced to turn away students is a terrible time.”

Ms. Eklund said she feels strongly about the situation, “not from a philosophical perspective, but more from our obligation to educate the children of this country.”

School districts even see it as a responsibility to offer a public education to those who may be undocumented, she said.

“The Constitutional rights of these children [banned from classes because they are not immunized] are being denied and that is a scary place to be for all of us,” Ms. Eklund said. “It has pitted neighbor against neighbor and that can never be a good thing, To make the education of children the pawn in this situation is unconscionable.”

No external entity should have the right to take education away from children, “especially without due process — another Constitutional right,” she added.

Conversely, a letter to the editor this week from Maureen Turey, M.D., an Island resident, argued that, when she was a medical student volunteering at a mission hospital in Liberia, she saw “many children die terrible deaths” as a result of measles pneumonia.

“Do these parents complaining that their children will be bullied for not attending school not see that they are in fact endangering the health of other children?” Dr. Turey wrote.

She called the new state law a matter of public safety, not parental rights, and said the requirement that children be vaccinated if they are to attend school is “long overdue.”