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School Bucks Compulsory Vaccinations

Thu, 12/19/2019 - 15:58

The Southampton School District has joined the growing list of schools that have come out against a state proposal to make the HPV (human papillomavirus) vaccine mandatory for children born after Jan. 1, 2009.

Multiple related bills in the New York State Senate and Assembly have become controversial among parents and school officials on Long Island, with much of the debate unfolding on social media. HPV is transmitted through intimate physical contact; some strains of the virus are harmless and symptoms go away on their own, while others have been linked to reproductive cancers.

“Public schools are not places where students engage in the activities that cause the spread of HPV,” says a Nov. 20 letter signed by the Southampton School Board and school officials. “How then can HPV be considered a public health risk that requires mandatory immunization prior to attending school?” 

“I feel like it’s just something that’s taking our rights away,” Jamie Forbell, an East Hampton parent, said by phone this week after posting Southampton’s letter on Facebook. “I believe in vaccinations fully. I have three kids, and we always got all the vaccinations done. I don’t feel like [the HPV vaccine] is necessary, because it’s not an airborne disease. It’s a sexually transmitted disease — not something they’re going to pick up at school.”

“The data on these vaccines does not justify or warrant imperative government action in the name of public safety over individual rights,” the Southampton letter says.

Ms. Forbell called upon the East Hampton School Board to follow in Southampton’s footsteps. “Tons of other schools are doing it,” she said. “At least try to do something. I don’t want to have to pull my kids out of school and homeschool them.”

Some state officials have also proposed making flu vaccines mandatory. Southampton’s letter cites the total number of vaccine doses that children receive, and a lack of long-term research on the effect of the flu and HPV vaccines on children, as reasons that the state should not make them mandatory. The federal Centers for Disease Control says children should receive 72 doses of various immunizations; HPV and flu vaccines would bring that total to 93 total doses by the time a child is 18 years old.

 In July, the State Legislature passed a law repealing a religious exemption that had been one of the only ways a student could attend school, either public or private, without having received the typical childhood vaccinations such as measles and mumps. Since then, many families have chosen either to home-school their children or, against their wishes, have them immunized. (A medical exemption remains in place.)

After that change, the Sag Harbor School Board agreed that then-superintendent Katy Graves should send a letter to Albany urging that implementation of the new rule be delayed, to give parents more time to make decisions about their children’s health and education. Before the letter could be sent, however, district officials changed their minds, upsetting some families who had pleaded with the board to send it. School officials said they had reversed course after consulting with their attorney.

Nicholas Dyno, Southampton’s superintendent, said the district talked to a lawyer before sending its letter to the state. More than 60 Southampton parents had signed a petition in favor of the protest.

“We’ve been reading a lot about it. The board has discussed it several times at meetings,” Mr. Dyno said this week. “Our objection was, before they pass something to turn it into law, make sure there’s a solid basis of research.”

Southampton and Sag Harbor employ the same law firm, Thomas M. Volz P.L.L.C. of Nesconset, which specializes in education and municipal law. Michael Vigliotta, a partner, declined to comment about the firm’s stand on the vaccine issue. “Any discussions we would have had with either of our clients is protected by the attorney-client privilege,” Mr. Vigliotta said by email.

Jordana Sobey, president of the Sag Harbor School Board, said parents have been forwarding copies of Southampton’s letter to her and her colleagues. “We have not yet addressed it as a board,” she said.

Some officials of local schools said they have been told it was unlikely the mandatory flu and HPV vaccine bills would make it through the Legislature successfully.

“We were told that this bill has been around for about five years and has had no traction to date, so at this time its implementation does not appear to be at all imminent,” Barbara Dayton, president of the Springs School Board, said in an email this week. 

Springs has not taken a position. Neither have the boards of the East Hampton, Montauk, Amagansett, or Sagaponack schools, according to senior officials in those districts. Bridgehampton and Wainscott school officials did not respond this week to requests for comment.

State Senator Kenneth P. LaValle could not be reached yesterday. Assemblyman Fred W. Thiele Jr. has said he opposes bills that would mandate HPV and flu immunizations. He voted against repealing the religious exemption.

“I think there is heightened concern about these bills because of all the activity that took away the religious exemption with regard to vaccines to be able to attend school,” Mr. Thiele said yesterday. “My sense of it is that I wouldn’t expect any action on these bills in the 2020 legislative session. I don’t support these bills. I think those are decisions that the parents should be making, not the state.”

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