A parent who spoke at a recent Board of Education (BOE) shed light on the issue of vaccination exemptions in the Chappaqua Central School District (CCSD). The parent, Robin Chwatko, has a daughter attending Roaring Brook Elementary School who is undergoing chemotherapy and is immuno-compromised.
Chwatko was joined by several parents at the meeting who want additional transparency from the district with regards to vaccine exemptions. Under New York State law all children attending public schools must be vaccinated except if they are claiming a medical or religious exemption. However, individual schools are allowed to grant religious or medical exemptions at their own discretion. In her statement before the BOE, Chwatko asserted that “it is imperative that a system is in place to not only properly vet and approve legitimate exemptions but to subsequently alert families and staff when there are unvaccinated children at their school, in their classroom and on their buses.”
The Challenge of Validating Religious Beliefs
Hilary Steuer Grasso, a mother with a child in the district and an education lawyer, noted that the “onus is on the school district to validate the claim of the sincerely held religious belief.” This came about from a 2010 decision by the Commissioner of Education in New York State. According to the decision, whether or not a religious belief is sincerely held can be a difficult factual determination that must be made, in the first instance, by school district officials. A parent/guardian must submit a written and signed statement to the school district stating that the parent/guardian objects to the child’s immunization due to sincere and genuine religious beliefs which prohibit the immunization of their child. After reviewing the parental statement, if questions still remain, the principal or another person in charge of the school may request supporting documents.
Recent media coverage has shown that some parents are claiming religious exemptions when they might simply be opposed to vaccinations for other reasons. For example, many parents fear vaccinations may cause autism despite that this has been debunked in the medical community. Just this past summer, Minnesota, which has a strong contingent of anti-vaccine activists, suffered the worst measles outbreak in decades. Other states such as California are now only permitting medical exemptions due to a rise in the number of purported religious exemptions.
Gaining Widespread Support from the Community
In addition to speaking before the BOE, Chwatko started a moveon.org petition requesting a committee be formed to create a uniform district wide policy for vetting vaccine exemptions and that parents and staff be alerted when an unvaccinated child is in a classroom, school or bus without revealing that child’s name. In the 48 hours since the petition went viral, it received 270 signatures from parents and concerned residents in the district. It is unclear how many children in the school district are receiving vaccination exemptions and the nature of those exemptions. An Inside Press inquiry received no further information as of press time.
Issue Looms Larger Than Just Immuno-Compromised Children
Chwatko is in a precarious situation because her son happens to be one of the rare cases, (about 10-20% of vaccinated kids), where lasting immunity cannot be obtained. Her petition and several parents on Facebook echoed that this is really a larger public health issue. In her petition, she wrote “And what about a pregnant teacher? Or a child with an infant sibling at home? It takes one bus ride, one drink from a shared water fountain, one cough at close range to put compromised people at immeasurable and unthinkable risk.”
Whether or not to vaccinate a child is a controversial issue for many parents. Acknowledging this, Chwatko noted that “no parent vaccinates their child with unbridled enthusiasm – we do it because vaccinations are scientifically proven to protect the health of our own kids and the kids in our community. It is not only a legal obligation to vaccinate your child, but a moral one as well. There is no question that any child who can safely be vaccinated should be, period.” In her petition, Chwatko continued that “with every unvaccinated child that enters our schools, herd immunity is weakened and our entire community, students and staff alike, are needlessly exposed. “
Ellen Lestz, M.D., a pediatrician with White Plains Hospital Medical and Wellness in Armonk commented that “the importance of vaccinations can not be overstated. It is very important to vaccinate every child against communicable diseases. Diseases such as measles and chicken pox are very contagious and because we don’t see these as much anymore we fail to grasp their seriousness. For example, while measles and chicken pox can cause a rash, they can also lead to fatal neurological conditions. We need to understand the complications of these diseases in order to stress the importance of these vaccines.”
The petition clearly states that it is not forcing parents to vaccinate their children or “outing” unvaccinated children. Several parents who signed the petition commented that they want the district to take a similar stance on unvaccinated children as the district does to children with food allergies. Letters are sent home at the beginning of the school year stating specific food allergies in a classroom without revealing the child’s name. It is unclear if similar letters will be distributed regarding unvaccinated children at this time.