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Time has run out for certain students in the Riverhead Central School District who do not have their immunizations up-to-date — whether for religious reasons or not — and as soon as Wednesday, will not be permitted to attend school due to new state legislation that has tightened rules regarding school vaccination requirements.

According to district officials, as many as 328 students across all Riverhead schools will be affected— including 39 students with religious exemption requests, as well as those who, for other unspecified reasons, have not yet complied with the new rules.

Under the new legislation signed into law in June, children cannot attend public, private or religious schools in New York for more than 14 days— 30 days, if the students are transferring from another state/country, or are missing required immunization boosters — without a valid medical medical exemption. 

Superintendent Dr. Aurelia Henriquez said in an interview that the district has to comply with the new rules, which affect all New York state schools, and that it is “out of the district’s control.” However, she said that the district has been in close consultation with the district’s lawyers about this issue, and “everyone is on board to handle this in the most sensitive and humane way possible.”

“We are making the best of a situation that none of us chose,” she said. “We will very respectfully ask parents, if children come to school on Wednesday, we will be asking parents to please come pick them up.”

She added that the district does not have a “cookie-cutter plan” for affected students, and that the district will deal with each student “on a case by case basis.”

The district has added information on homeschooling on their website (also available in Spanish) and Henriquez said that parents who are interested in this option should reach out directly to the director of pupil personnel services/special education Eileen Manitta for more information.

Parents of children who are not vaccinated due to religious reasons decried the new rules at a contentious board of education meeting last week and asked the district to support them in obtaining an emergency injunction to allow children to stay in school after Tuesday. (See prior story)

Henriquez said that she has written two letters so far on behalf of the board of education, one in August and another last week, asking several state officials — including Board of Regents officials, state judges, state elected representatives — to delay the implementation.

A delay, she said, would have helped parents make appropriate plans for their children and consult medical professionals. 

New York state Assembly Member Fred Thiele, who voted against the bill that eliminated religious exemptions, agreed.

“I believe in vaccinations,” Thiele said. “However, I do support the right of others who have religious beliefs and do not support or do not believe in vaccinations, I support their rights.”

Thiele went on to say that he believed the legislation was “flawed” for “two reasons.” 

“If people felt that that the exemption was too open-ended, it could have been reformed, but to completely eliminate it, I thought was wrong and went way too far.”

He also said that not enough time was provided for parents, as well as schools and administrators, to implement the new law. 

“From my perspective, not only did the bill go too far, but even if you accept the premise of the bill, we didn’t give local school districts and parents nearly enough time for the implementation of this law,” Thiele said.

However, Thiele added that so far there was no indication of any kind of relief, in terms of providing a stay or any other emergency measure, from the Board of Regents or the state legislature. The latter is not currently in session. 

Additionally, State Supreme Court Judge Denise Hartman ruled in late August against 55 families who had filed a lawsuit in June challenging the law’s constitutionality.

“Because plaintiffs have not demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits, the Supreme Court denies the request for a preliminary injunction; the legislative repeal of the religious exemption remains in effect,” Hartman wrote in a 32-page decision

Aside from New York, three other states, California, Mississipi and West Virginia, also have laws that eliminate religious exemptions for vaccinations. 

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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