For Unvaccinated Students on Long Island, Uncertainty This Back-To-School Season

Sad boy sits alone

For more than 26,000 students, New York State’s recent repeal of the religious exemption for immunizations means they may never be allowed to set foot in their school or daycare again.

Among those in legal limbo are children on Long Island, whose families anxiously await news of two lawsuits seeking a resolution that may allow their kids to stay in their usual classrooms as their parents feverishly consider options. For those who are steadfast in their conviction to not vaccinate, if the legal challenges fail, considerations include home schooling, moving, or splitting up their family come September. Some public and private school administrators on LI are not sitting idly by amid the turmoil.

“As we begin to prepare for the upcoming school year, we are now faced with the horrific ramifications of this decision with no clear direction on how to serve these children,” East Islip School District Superintendent John V. Dolan said in a letter supporting a preliminary injunction and a stay while a lawsuit seeking to overturn the law is pending. “As an educator, as a parent, and a member of the human race, I implore you to grant a stay so that we can work together for a solution to this situation.”

Sparking the legal challenge was a state law passed on June 13 that ended the state’s religious exemptions from immunizations, which allowed parents to send their unvaccinated children to public and private schools as well as day care. The law was in response to a measles outbreak in Brooklyn and Rockland County. The law took effect immediately, giving children 14 days to attend school, after which they are required to show they received the first dose in each series of immunizations. After that they have until the 30th day to show a schedule for the remainder. All children are required to be fully caught up according to their age by June 30, 2020.

The case Superintendent Dolan sent a letter supporting is one of two lawsuits challenging the religious exemption repeal. His letter was submitted in support of the lawsuit filed in the Albany County court — in which a key hearing is scheduled for Wednesday — seeking a preliminary injunction and a stay allowing all students that had or would have been entitled to a religious exemption to continue attending their usual schools. The second lawsuit filed in Brooklyn federal court raises federal challenges seeking the same remedies for Special Education students with Individual Education Plans (IEPs).

Affected families are hoping they won’t have to uproot their kids while they’re planning for the worst-case scenario.

“He will no longer have the opportunity to foster relationships with his teachers and continue to overcome his anxiety,” Valerie Domenech of East Islip said of her 8-year-old son. “My son will not be able to attend school with his friends. He will no longer be able to learn with them, play with them, eat lunch with them, or socialize with them during the school day.”

Should a stay not be granted in either case, the Domenech family plans to homeschool. Aside from a feeling of isolation, Domenech, a full-time teacher, says the new arrangement will have a negative impact on her family financially.

“We are just completely devastated,” she added. Domenech said she has friends who already quit their jobs and moved out of state while others put their homes up for sale.

“And yet others are in a state of uncertainty,” she said. “They will not violate the tenets of their religion. They cannot homeschool. They cannot move. They are at a complete loss.”

State Assemb. Jeffrey Dinowitz (D-Bronx), who sponsored the law, said the only thing stopping kids from going to school are their parents.

“They simply have to get the appropriate vaccinations for their children in order to protect their own children, as well as other children,” he said. “If a child cannot attend school because their parents failed to have them vaccinated, then it’s not anybody other than the parent who is keeping them out of school.”

Some school officials who made their opposition to the repeal public relayed concerns about the emotional and educational impact of losing critical academic, extracurricular, social, and special education services.

In his letter to the Albany court, Rev. Joel Maus, Superintendent of Smithtown Christian School, noted a “grossly implemented change” in which families were given little time to process the law and make a decision. He cited “students on the cusp of their educational career now graduating from nowhere.”

It’s not just parochial school administrators speaking out.

“These kids have been our students in some cases for nine or 10 years and next year, they can’t come to school anymore,” said William H. Johnson, superintendent of the Rockville Centre School District. “It would be very helpful if more time was given to both the families and the school district to work this out.”

Advocates feel as though thousands of students have become outcasts as a result of the state law.

“Families feel cast aside like non-members of society and their children like castoffs and rejects from the educational system that has nurtured, loved, and educated them,” said Rita Palma, founder of advocacy group My Kids, My Choice. “Vaccinating their children is not an option for the majority of these families. Religious beliefs did not change miraculously on June 13.”