Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Unvaccinated children in the Riverhead Central School District will not be allowed to remain in school after Tuesday, Sept. 17, the result of new state legislation that removed all non-medical exemptions from school vaccination requirements.

Parents of unvaccinated children in the district decried the law at a board of education meeting this week and asked the district to support them in obtaining an emergency injunction to allow children to stay in school after Tuesday, as well as write a delay of implementation letter in the children’s favor.

According to district officials, currently there are 39 students with religious exemption requests in the district.

“These ridiculous mandates are stripping us of our constitutional rights as parents, and our religious freedoms,” Danielle Good, a Riverhead district graduate and mother to an Aquebogue Elementary School student, said. “Now, over 26,000 children [in the state] cannot attend school as of next week, we’re not really sure what the plan is yet, we’re hoping you can let us know ahead of time to prepare our kids.”

Good was one of about 20 parents — all dressed in white — to speak publicly at the meeting and to protest the state’s decision, as well as ask assistance from the district.

Some parents grew emotional as they spoke about being forced to choose between their child attending school or being vaccinated. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Under the new law, children cannot attend school for more than 14 days — 30 days, if the students are transferring from another state/country, or are missing required immunization boosters — Assistant Superintendent Christine Tona explained Tuesday.

“Our kids need to see that the district and board of education are actually taking a stand for them with some sort of action,” said Lisa Olsen. “So that when they are asked to leave their buildings on the 15th day, they at least know that the district had their back, they should know that you at least tried.”

Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez said that she had already written a letter on behalf of the board of education asking several state officials — including Board of Regents officials, state judges, state representatives Anthony Palumbo and Fred Thiele and state senator Kenneth P. LaValle — to delay the implementation so parents could have more time to make appropriate plans for their children. She told parents she would write another letter Wednesday.

“I did write a letter. I spoke about how multicultural our district is, and about religious rights being violated and civil rights,” Henriquez said.

Henriquez also said that the district has shown support for those parents who feel that their religious rights have been violated by asking for a stay, but beyond that, she said, “this is something this out of the district’s control,” and ultimately “it is something that involves all New York state schools.”

Henriquez also agreed with the complaint of several parents in regards to the timing and rollout of this legislation.

“We don’t feel that adequate time has been given, with the way that this has been rolled out. That’s very important here,” Henriquez said in an interview. “It was really unfair that the rollout of this was done in such a way that parents have not had time to adequately plan and/or consult with medical professionals.”

The parents spoke passionately about en emotionally charged topic that caught the attention of the whole nation earlier this year when an outbreak of measles that originated in New York — with about 1,200 people getting sick, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 75% of those cases in NY alone — prompted lawmakers to enact legislation to amend the public health law in relation to vaccination exemptions on religious grounds.

“The science is crystal clear: Vaccines are safe, effective and the best way to keep our children safe,” Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a press release in June. “While I understand and respect freedom of religion, our first job is to protect the public health and by signing this measure into law, we will help prevent further transmissions and stop this outbreak right in its tracks.”

Additionally, last month state officials tightened the rules to prevent physicians from granting school vaccination exemptions for non-medical reasons.

Dr. Arthur Fougner, president of the Medical Society of the State of New York, an organization for New York physicians, agreed and said that fear, misinformation and conspiracy theories are factors that lead parents not to vaccinate.

“We are talking about diseases than can kill people. Vaccinating is one of the tried and true public health measures that actually work. I mean, maybe the only thing that is more important is sanitation and washing your hands. And now we have folks throwing this away, it’s mind boggling,” he said and added “vaccines would not be licensed if they weren’t safe.”

He added that “there are no major religions that have a beef with vaccines,” and that “vaccines made today are not made with fetal tissue,” something that several parents provided as a reason Tuesday not to vaccinate on religious grounds. He also said that the incidence of a mild to severe reaction to vaccines is one in two million, while the incidence of a severe reaction, including death, in measles, is one to two per thousand.

Riverhead pediatrician Dr. Jennifer Shaer, the chief medical officer of Allied Physicians Group, said that the way vaccines work, they are only effective when a very high percentage of the community is vaccinated, suppressing the disease, protecting those who cannot be vaccinated like newborns and others who cannot get vaccinate due to medical reasons, and creating a so-called “herd immunity.”

“It’s the same argument that when someone says ‘it’s my right not to wear a seatbelt to the car,’ it is, but you might get a ticket, or ‘it’s my right to smoke wherever I want’, but there are some thing we do as a country for the public good,” she said. “This is one of those things, and it becomes a little bit more emotional because it’s your baby, but it really is the same issue.”

However, parents of unvaccinated children who spoke publicly Tuesday night said that they did not plan to vaccinate their children and were now focused on the next steps.

“How do we provide the homeschooling that Riverhead offers? I love this district,” a visibly emotional parent of a middle school Riverhead student said. “We have two full time parents that work full time. How do we homeschool our children? Not to mention parents who have to homeschool their children and it’s going to cause a burden financially. I hope we get some kind of information on how to do this.”

Aquebogue kindergarten teacher Keri Stromski and Kristen Kramer help Kramer’s son to the microphone. Photo: Maria Piedrabuena

Aquebogue Elementary School kindergarten teacher Keri Stromski took the podium to say she stands with the parents. She said she was diagnosed with stage four cancer three years ago and has been on constant chemo treatments ever since.

“I am immunocompromised,” Stromski said. “I know for a fact I have had children who are not vaccinated in my classroom. Children who have the flu are more dangerous to me than your children,” she said.

“These children will be at the supermarket, at the playground, at the aquarium. I am not afraid of your children,” Stromski said, adding “apparently they are only a danger from 9 to 3.”

“This is about freedom, and your freedom is being taken away,” Stromski said. As a public school teacher, I am like the statue of liberty:
Give me your tired, your poor — And I never said, ‘Have you had your shots?'”

Henriquez said in an interview Thursday that the district has a plan and will be contacting families affected in the coming days. She declined to elaborate.

Correction: This story has been amended post-publication to correct the misattribution of a statement made by a parent at the meeting. It was incorrectly attributed to Danielle Good, when it was made by Lisa Olsen.

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Maria Piedrabuena
María, a multimedia reporter, graduated from Stony Brook University with degrees in journalism and women and gender studies. She has worked for several news outlets including News12 and Fortune Magazine. A native of Spain, she loves to read, write and travel. She lives in Manorville. Email Maria