While all local day schools canvassed by the Jewish Standard adhere to state guidelines on vaccination, some school health professionals are particularly passionate about the need for families to comply. (For the state guidelines, see sidebar.)
“All kids needs to be immunized,” said Toby Eizig, the nurse at Englewood’s Moriah School. “There should be no picking or choosing – one from column ‘a’ and one from column ‘b.’ I’ve sent letters home saying students don’t have a certain vaccine – and unless they have it as of a certain date, they may not attend school.”
Believing that “these vaccines are used with the best interests of children in mindâ€¦ [that] there are illnesses that can be eradicatedâ€¦ and that some of these illnesses can have devastating effects,” Ms. Eizig said she does not understand why parents would opt not to have their children vaccinated.
“Kids with medical exemptions need ironclad reasons” for opting out of vaccinations, she said, citing, for example, children on chemotherapy. Interestingly, she noted, chemo “erases all their previous vaccinations and they need to start from scratch,” following a legally prescribed waiting period.
At the Solomon Schechter Day School of Bergen County, nurse Debbie Mendeloff also stressed the importance of vaccinations, pointing out that those who are not vaccinated “put others at risk who can’t get immunizations for medical reasons.” Among those are infants too young to be vaccinated, pregnant women, and people going through chemotherapy.
Ruth Roth, the director of admissions at Ben Porat Yosef in Paramus, said that New Jersey vaccination requirements are sent to students in Israel who plan to attend the school. (There are about 10 such students a year, she said.)
“We tell them they have to get the vaccinations,” Ms. Roth added. Generally, she asks parents to have the children vaccinated before they come, since once they arrive, they will have to sort out the issue of medical insurance, and that may delay the process.
The grace period for getting the shots is short, she said. She noted also that representatives of the town’s health department have come to the school to look at its medical records.
Ms. Roth noted that doctors also have become more stringent on the issue of vaccinations, and that some doctors will not accept as patients the children of parents who refuse vaccinations for them.
Robert Smolen, general studies coordinator and middle school director of the Gerrard Berman Day School in Oakland, confirmed that his school follows state guidelines on vaccinations. He said that he follows up with parents until all vaccines can be documented or exemptions noted. “We do allow religious exemptions and we have had them here.”
Rabbi Daniel Price, head of school at the Rosenbaum Yeshiva of North Jersey, said that his school follows state guidelines as well but that grace periods may depend on the needs of individual families. There are state-mandated grace periods, but most schools indicated that there’s some flexibility and they handle it on a case-by-case basis as long as it’s not excessive.
“Obviously, there are extenuating circumstances, such as a parent switching jobs and therefore switching insurance companies,” Rabbi Price said.
Yavneh Academy’s head of school, Rabbi Jonathan Knapp, indicated that while following state guidelines, “several months ago, the school started the process of evaluating its policy regarding immunizations and will continue to assess and potentially modify it going forward.”
At the Frisch School in Paramus, nurse Leah Shteyngart confirmed the school’s compliance with New Jersey state regulations but added that, of course, the school honors religious exemptions. [See following section on religious exemptions].
She noted also that an auditor comes in each year to check the school’s records.
“We’re on top of it,” she said, adding that students will be called if their medical records are not up to date.
At the Torah Academy of Bergen County, health care professional Linda Moed Cohen said that while the school honors religious exemptions, “we have had very few who have opted out of vaccines.” Indeed, she said, she recalled only two such families in 11 years. Those who do claim exemptions, she said, “need a letter from a lawyer that they have opted out.”
She understands, she said, that some people “may be a little scared, for all sorts of reasons.” For example, “they don’t believe in injecting foreign bodies into their children, possibly bringing unknown complications.” She did, however, note that the connection between the MMR vaccine and autism has been “debunked.”
Ms. Cohen said since health conditions change, she requires medical forms at the beginning of each year.
“It’s so important,” she said. With students engaging in activities such as sports, “we need the latest and best [medical information] in hand.”
Other things change as well, she said, adding that most students coming from Israel used to wait until they came here to get chicken pox vaccinations. Now, more children are getting them in Israel.
She also suggested that since “the effect of a vaccine is just so long” before it wears off, students may ultimately need boosters for a number of things. She cited, for example, the current increase in cases of whooping cough, a disease for which most children have been immunized.
Significantly, while the issue of religious exemptions came up in discussions with several of the schools, the issue is not one reserved for religious schools alone.
While all 50 states require certain vaccinations for children entering public schools [there are no federal laws mandating vaccination], only Mississippi and West Virginia do not offer religious exemptions. In New Jersey, these exemptions can be claimed in all schools – public, private, and parochial.
To obtain a religious exemption, “A written statement should be submitted by the student, or the student’s parent or guardian if the student is a minor, explaining how the administration of the vaccine conflicts with the bona fide religious tenets or practices of the student, or the parent or guardian, as appropriate; except that a general philosophical or moral objection to the vaccination shall not be sufficient for an exemption on religious grounds.”
According to data from the New Jersey Department of Health, the number of schoolchildren who have been able to opt out of vaccinations for religious reasons has increased dramatically over the past several years.
In general, the New Jersey Catholic Conference takes a similar approach to Jewish schools in dealing with vaccinations, strongly encouraging all parents to vaccinate their children “for the health and safety of not only those children, but also all members of the school community with whom they may come in contact.”
However, their recommendation is made “despite the unfortunate origin of the cell lines used in the manufacture of these vaccines.” Cells derived from an aborted fetus, for example, may be questionable. This factor has not been cited as an issue in the Jewish community.