Homeschooling could increase under new vaccine mandate

Danielle Good of Riverhead said last Tuesday that she has loved watching her 7-year-old son come home and tell her about his first few days of second grade at Aquebogue Elementary School. She’s been looking forward to one day watching him graduate from Riverhead High School, her alma mater. 

But following a state mandate that denies religious exemption from required vaccinations, she said, her son will not be able to return to school this week.

Ms. Good and hundreds of other Long Island parents have been advised by their local school districts that their children must be vaccinated within the first month of classes or face removal from the classroom. Some of those parents had previously obtained religious exemptions from vaccinations.

In June, following a major measles outbreak in the country, state lawmakers voted to abolish a vaccination exemption based on religious beliefs.

The new law, according to the New York State Department of Health, “helps to protect the public amid the outbreak” by mandating the all children who previously claimed religious exemptions be vaccinated. If they are not, they cannot continue in daycare or attend public, private or parochial schools.

Anti-vaccination protesters made headlines just one week ago after they flooded state education department headquarters in Albany to combat the recent decision and demand that their unvaccinated children be allowed back in school. The demonstrators delayed a Board of Regents meeting.

Ms. Good said the state law, which she believes violates her freedom of religion, came abruptly.

“These ridiculous mandates are stripping us of our constitutional rights as parents and our religious freedoms,” Ms. Good said at a Riverhead school board meeting last Tuesday. “The state gave families virtually no time to prepare.”

As of Sept. 6, 5.6% of the Riverhead Central School District student population has an incomplete immunization profile, according to district officials.

At the school board meeting, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction Christine Tona said new students from out-of-state and out-of-country, and those who have not received required boosters, have 30 days from registration to provide proof of immunization. Returning students have 14 days from the start of classes to provide proof of immunization. On the North Fork, that deadline was Tuesday, Sept. 17.

“The state has made that incredibly strict for us, and all districts, this year,” Ms. Tona said.

Superintendent Aurelia Henriquez said she would submit another letter to the Board of Regents and state representatives Wednesday requesting that implementation of the regulation be delayed.

The issue stretches beyond Riverhead: The Mattituck-Cutchogue School District posted a Frequently Asked Questions list from the state Department of Health on its website in August regarding school vaccinations and non-medical exemptions.

Eight students in that district are expected to be homeschooled this year and two more may be added to that list, Superintendent Jill Gierasch said earlier this month.

Greenport and Southold joint Superintendent David Gamberg did not disclose the number of students in each district who have not been immunized, but said parents are “working to become compliant with the vaccination schedule.” As a result, he said, a “very small number” of students from those districts will be homeschooled.

East Hampton resident Teresa Loos has homeschooled her 19-year-old daughter since age 4 for non-vaccine-related reasons. She holds educational classes for homeschoolers, “Homeschool 101,” and said she’s seen an increase in parent enrollment for classes on Long Island since the state decision.

“Normally the class would fill 30 people, now I’m getting 40 people,” she said. “I think I put on 20 of these classes already [this year]. Normally I would put on only five to 10.”

She said she saw parents pull their children from the classroom after Common Core was implemented, but based on what she’s heard from fellow homeschoolers, this is a more personal issue.

“This is different than what’s happened in the past because this is a constitutional right that’s being challenged,” she said. “We’re guaranteed freedom of religion in America. Now they’re saying that if you want to use our institution, you can’t have those beliefs.”

Khristy Rutkowski of Hampton Bays, who attended a “Homeschooling 101” session in Southold, said she will homeschool her 7-year-old son because of the mandate. As a single mother, she said, homeschooling seems daunting, but vaccination was out of the question.

“I always wanted to homeschool, so this is an opportunity. But at the same time, the concern for paying the bills, keeping food on the table — there are other things to manage,” Ms. Rutkowski said. “It’s unethical on many levels.”

Caption: Aquebogue Elementary School teacher Keri Stromski (left) and Kristen Kramer lift Ms. Kramer’s son to the microphone at last Tuesday’s Riverhead school board meeting. Ms. Stromski and nearly 30 others attended the meeting to express their frustration with new state legislation that abolishes religious exemption from school vaccinations.

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