At least six greater Cortland area schools have lost students who lack vaccinations, and all of them — both public and parochial — that enroll unvaccinated students now face fines if they fail to comply with state law.
While parents in New York once had the option of exempting their children for religious reasons from vaccinations required for attending schools and childcare programs, that all changed June 13, when the state legislature passed a law eliminating that religious exemption.
Both public and parochial schools had 15 days this fall to make sure that all students had the required vaccinations. Failure to do so could result in $2,000 in fines for each violation.
How are greater Cortland area schools faring with the new requirements?
- Cortland Enlarged City School District: Three students were affected by the law. One student who was attending school this fall had to stop attending classes, said Superintendent Michael J. Hoose. That student, however, is expected to return after receiving vaccinations; the other two students are already being homeschooled, he said.
- Victory Christian Academy: Pastor Don Evans, head of school, said 18 students currently attend Victory Christian Academy. According to staff member David Forehand, the school lost 13 students who are now being homeschooled because of the state law. The loss of students, however, has not affected the functioning of the school, Evans said.
“We’re still doing it because we know that’s what God wants us to do,” said Evans.
“Honestly, we didn’t know as a school how to fight this,” said teaching assistant Gwendolyn Claussen, who said she and other church members thought the decision whether to vaccinate should have been left up to parents and not dictated by the state.
- Cortland Christian Academy: Pastor Craig Miller, head of school, said one pre-school student withdrew before the start of school because of the law. Another family, with a number of children that Miller would not specify, is sending their students to the school under an immunization schedule laid out by the state.
“Children can attend school as long as they have received the first age-appropriate dose in each immunization series no more than 14 days after the first day of school and can show within 30 days after the first day of school that they have scheduled appointments for the next required follow-up doses,” said Jill Montag, a spokeswoman with the state Department of Health. These students have until June 30, 2020, to be fully vaccinated.
Miller said this family is working through the state-mandated process.
“The immediate effect on our school has been relatively insignificant,” Miller said, “but I’m aware of other private faith-based schools that have been dramatically affected.” He pointed to two parochial schools in nearby counties — Central Baptist Christian Academy in Binghamton and Baldwinsville Christian Academy in Baldwinsville — as examples.
- Homer Central School District: “We had minimal impact in Homer due to the change in immunization legislation passed in June,” said Superintendent Thomas Turck.
Turck said he knew of one student who is being homeschooled because of the law. There could, however, be more. He said he does not have specific numbers on students who are being homeschooled or know why they are being homeschooled.
- McGraw Central School District: Nine students in four families were affected by the law.
“At this point, those families have decided to homeschool,” said Melinda McCool, superintendent.
- Marathon Central School District: This district saw one family decide to homeschool a student because of the law, said Superintendent Rebecca Stone.
“At the 15-day mark, we had all students enrolled following the immunization guidelines,” she said.
The superintendents of the Cincinnatus Central School District, Dryden Central School District, and Groton Central School District and the principal of St. Mary’s Catholic School could not be reached for comment.
The state Health Department has offered webinars for local health departments and healthcare professionals on student immunization and will audit schools to assure compliance, Montag said.
However, she also said that schools are ultimately responsible for ensuring that students comply with the law.
While fines can be levied for noncompliance, Montag said state health officials “are trying to help the schools ensure they are in compliance.”