Back to school? Maybe not

NYS bill removes religious exemption for vaccines

By Brooke Stacia Demott

While debate about the safety and legitimacy of childhood vaccination isn’t new, in recent days, residents of New York state have drawn lines in the sand over a hotly contested legislative move on behalf of the state government.

Governor Andrew Cuomo recently signed a bill removing religious exemptions for vaccination, mandating that every child entering public, parochial or private school — as well as those entering pre-K and daycare — must receive certain vaccines prior to enrollment. This makes New York the fifth state after California, Maine, Mississippi and West Virginia to require school children to be vaccinated unless they have a valid medical reason for exemption.

“The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe,” Cuomo stated following the bill’s approval. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

The outbreak Cuomo cited took place in Rockland County earlier this year, with 266 confirmed measles cases, resulting in 16 hospitalizations.

Not everyone, however, shares the governor’s enthusiasm for mandatory preventive health care.

Tina Stickney, a Central New York resident and homeschooling mother of 11, says, “this issue is not about whether you agree with vaccines or not. This issue is about how much power we want government to have over our decisions as parents for our children.”

In recent years, a small but growing population rejects the Centers for Disease Centers’ recommendations for childhood vaccines, linking vaccines to certain chronic medical conditions, such as autism and autoimmune disorders. As a result, an estimated 26,000 state residents have claimed a religious exemption.

Gretchen Thompson, whose children previously attended the Oswego Community Christian School with a religious exemption, says that vaccines are not an option. “My oldest child received the HPV vaccine 8 years ago, and was hospitalized for 31 days with autoimmune encephalitis. Vomiting, crying … he stared at the ceiling for six hours until I crawled up into the hospital bed to close his eyelids.”

Thompsons’ children will not be returning to OCCS this fall. “We are extremely sad for our children, who loved their private school so much,” she said.

‘Law has been devastating’

Dave Proietti, principal of OCCS, shares Thompson’s sadness. “This new law has been devastating to our school. Some of our families have very strong views on not having their children vaccinated and until very recently, have exercised their rights through the religious exemption available in New York state. I don’t know if I can adequately convey the pain these parents have expressed at the reality that they would no longer be able to have their children attend our school and the sense of outrage that this law was pushed through.”

However, not all private schools are experiencing the same sting.

William Crist, superintendent of schools for the Catholic Diocese of Syracuse, says the impact on enrollment has been minimal.

“Across the seven counties and 22 schools under my jurisdiction, the bill hasn’t sent much of a tremor. The Catholic faith doesn’t frown on vaccines, and I do believe the new legislation will protect the population of our schools. While we certainly welcome all families, we must comply with the law,” Crist stated.

There are approximately 4,700 students under his charge. “The school with the greatest loss of enrollment has been St. Patrick’s in Oneida. Here, about 8% of our students will not be returning,” he said.

How have parents responded?

“Families believed that they would be insulated in a private school. We have tried to encourage them to get the vaccines and to stay, but many are opting to leave the state. A few will be homeschooling,” he said.

Homeschooling, which has in recent years become increasingly mainstream, may be an option for displaced anti-vaxxers.

Rob Snyder, co-president and a member of the executive committee of Homeschool NY, is seeing a dramatic increase of interest concerning the alternative method of education.

The Long Island resident oversees more than 90 chapters of regional home school localities and cooperatives statewide, and reports a surge of inquiries from first-time homeschoolers.

“The interest in locating a ‘Homeschooling 101’ type course is off the charts right now,” Snyder says. “Just recently my wife Jen and a representative from the Home School Legal Defense Association gave a three-hour tutorial to 800 people in a Long Island hotel conference center, largely due to this new legislation.” As a Christian organization, Homeschool NY intends to capitalize on these new relationships as opportunities to share the gospel. “Long Island isn’t exactly the Bible Belt,” Snyder said. “This is an opportunity for us as Christians to share the gospel, wrapped up in homeschooling. We’re here to dispel myths, provide honest and quality answers, and be the best source of truth. As an organization, we don’t change; we exist to support home school legislation and families.”

Faith in system

Although homeschoolers are not required to vaccinate, many — if not most — homeschoolers do choose to vaccinate their children.

Pepper Castle, a licensed practical nurse and homeschooling mother of four, has vaccinated her children, and although she has adverse reactions to the flu shot, does not contest the administration of standard childhood vaccines.

Neither does Susan Humphrey, co-op coordinator for Homeschool NY in Oswego County.

Humphrey, wife of a local family practitioner and mother of two, believes that vaccines are safe and effective.

While Maine passed an identical bill removing religious exemptions earlier this year, the Pine Tree State has given its residents until Sept. 1, 2021 to figure out how to proceed. By comparison, time frames in New York state seem far more demanding, requiring students to receive their first round of vaccines within 14 days of the first day of school or day care in order to maintain enrollment for the 2019-20 school year.

Regina Bullman, public education coordinator for the Oneida County Health Department, said, “we have worked very hard to get the message out to parents to make them aware of the new law and to encourage them to schedule their back-to-school vaccination appointments with their health care provider as early as possible. We have seen no increase in vaccination requests at our public health clinic so far this summer,” but are hoping that patients will visit their primary care provider to be vaccinated.

“I’m not sure what I will do,” Cayuga Community College student Rohan Jacobs, 22, said. Jacobs has one semester left before graduation, and has never been vaccinated.

“It just wasn’t something I thought I’d have to consider. I might get caught up, or I might try and finish my education through online courses,” he said. “I can understand why they passed the law; I just wish they had been a little more compassionate about giving us time to figure out what to do now.”

Visit the NYS Department of Health website for further details.

Required vaccines

The vaccines required under the bill are the, Polio, MMr, Hep B, Hib, PCV, and MENacwy, depending on the student’s age. Certain vaccines are not required after the sixth grade 6.


DTaP is a vaccine that helps children younger than age 7 develop immunity to three deadly diseases caused by bacteria: diphtheria, tetanus, and whooping cough (pertussis). Tdap is a booster immunization given at age 11 that offers continued protection from those diseases for adolescents and adults.


Polio vaccines are vaccines used to prevent poliomyelitis. The World Health Organization recommends all children be fully vaccinated against polio.

MMR vaccine:

The MMR vaccine is a vaccine against measles, mumps, and rubella. The first dose is generally given to children around 9 to 15 months of age, with a second dose at 15 months to 6 years of age, with at least four weeks between doses.

Hep B:

The hepatitis B vaccine is a vaccine recommended for all infants at birth and for children up to 18 years.

Hib: The Haemophilus influenzae type B vaccine, often called Hib vaccine, is a vaccine used to prevent Haemophilus influenzae type b infection.

PCV: Pneumococcal conjugate vaccine is a pneumococcal vaccine and a conjugate vaccine used to protect infants, young children, and adults against disease caused by the bacterium Streptococcus pneumoniae.

MenACWY: The MenACWY vaccine protects against four different strains of the meningococcal bacteria that cause meningitis and blood poisoning (septicaemia).