School ban for unvaccinated children is difficult but necessary

Some children who spent the last two weeks getting to know their teachers and classmates soon will be sent home, no longer allowed to attend school.

That will enable other children, those who have compromised immunity or other medical conditions, to stay in school knowing that their classmates aren’t capable of spreading dangerous and sometimes deadly illnesses.

In the raucous debate over vaccination, we don’t often hear from the children. But this week is about them, especially those who cannot be vaccinated and rely on everyone else — the concept of herd immunity — to stay safe. Two months after the state disallowed religious exemptions for vaccinations, and following a 14-day grace period that ends this week, schools must send home children who aren’t vaccinated and lack medical exemptions. That includes day care facilities, and all public and private schools, including the city’s yeshivas that were home to many of NYC’s 654 measles cases dating back to last September.

This is a key step to protect New Yorkers’ health. Enforcement by school superintendents, principals and the state Department of Health is essential.

In the 2017-18 school year, 26,217 students statewide claimed religious exemptions to avoid getting vaccinations. Since those exemptions were banned, many children have begun to receive vaccinations against measles, mumps, whooping cough and other diseases, and they will be able to stay in school, even as it takes time to catch up with their shots. But others have parents who vehemently protest the ban. Much of the time, the objections aren’t about religion, but about claims that vaccines aren’t safe.

But the science and safety of vaccination, and the need for a large percentage of the population to have the shots, are clear. The medical exemption, the only one still available in New York State, must be granted when warranted. Pediatricians must reassure patients and their parents of the safety and importance of immunization. Nonetheless, the state Department of Health should track medical exemptions and the physicians who grant them to prevent abuse.

There also is concern that some schools might be slow to comply, or might not comply. The Department of Health plans to audit schools with previously high exemption rates and gather data. That effort must be comprehensive and expeditious, with the data made public quickly. When a school fails to comply, health officials must investigate. Meanwhile, the state should better automate vaccination reporting and tracking so compliance is easier to gauge, and any troubling trends or abuse are easier to uncover.

Over the last year, more than 1,000 children became sick as a measles epidemic broke out in New York State. Authorities must ensure that doesn’t happen again. The fabric of our society rests on our ability to protect our most vulnerable members – our children, but also others at risk, like a pregnant young teacher, an older principal or a mom with cancer. They’re counting on it. 

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