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Schools' religious exemptions are gone. So are many students

West Seneca Christian School, a small private school, lost 10% of its population this September because parents refused to get kids vaccinated.

In Hamburg, several parents decided to home-school their children this year rather than have them inoculated.

And in Buffalo, more than 1,500 students are not in class this week as their families work with the district to update their shots.

It’s all due to a change in state law meant to ensure that students are inoculated against a host of childhood diseases. The change has pitted some parents against schools and the medical community and comes as the United States is experiencing its worst measles outbreak in more than 25 years.

"It’s a good law. It's keeping our children and our community safe," Erie County Health Commissioner Gale R. Burstein said.

The idea of having as many children as possible vaccinated for measles and other diseases is to prevent the disease from getting a foothold and spreading to those with compromised immune systems or those who cannot be immunized for medical reasons.

And the measles vaccine, for example, is 97% effective after two doses, Burstein said, so there is a small percentage of those who have been immunized who could get the disease if they are exposed.

"These are all evidence based, they’ve all been proven scientifically safe and effective in preventing these diseases," Burstein said of the vaccines.

Seventeen students received a religious exemption last school year at West Seneca Christian School, said Administrator the Rev. Josh Sexton. Twelve did not return this school year, and Sexton said some of those students left the state.

Attempts in court to overturn the new law were unsuccessful, requiring children to receive their first series of vaccinations within 14 days of the first day of school. Within 30 days, parents are required to provide proof of scheduled appointments for all required follow-up doses.

A study by the New York State Health Foundation showed the change would affect about 26,000 school children statewide, including more than 1,200 in Erie and Niagara counties who had a religious exemption.

West Seneca Christian was scrambling at the end of the summer, as families were waiting to see if the court challenges would be successful. Sexton said he found out Aug. 23 the challenge had lost, and by Aug. 26, families had pulled 10 children out of school, in addition to two students who had left earlier. Those who could not or chose not to home-school were left with trying to get into compliance in a short period of time.

"Now they're forced to put things into their children's body they don't want to," he said, but he added that "the families who are here understand they have to get immunized."

The school draws students from across several school districts, and the districts that bus the students have different requirements the school has been trying to fulfill, Sexton said.

He said he has talked to families whose children left the school, and it has had a huge effect on them.

"The kids are sad and disappointed they can't be with their friends," he said.

At Hamburg Central, 1.5% of students received a religious exemption from getting immunized last year, according to state data. The district worked with parents over the summer to make sure they knew there would be no more religious exemptions.

"They weren't happy about it. They understood the position of the district, which I appreciate," Superintendent Michael Cornell said. "Their anger was really with the Legislature and not us."

It was a difficult decision for some families who oppose the inoculations to continue their practices, he said.

"I know that decision weighed heavily on them. It was not a decision they came to lightly," he said.

In Buffalo, a district of more than 33,000 students, the school district had 120 students granted religious exemptions last year, but the heightened scrutiny by the state to ensure school districts are in compliance is forcing all students to be up to date on their vaccinations.

Monday was the deadline in Buffalo. As of last week, however, more than 5,000 students still didn’t have all of the vaccinations required by the state.

By last Friday, that number dropped to 3,271, said Darren Brown-Hall, the district’s chief of staff.

“I know the clinics were working overtime to accommodate families,” Brown-Hall said.

As of Tuesday, there were still more than 1,550 students who did not have the proper vaccinations, Brown-Hall said.

That meant when some of the kids showed up to school on Monday’s deadline date, their parents had to be called to pick them up. Brown-Hall didn’t know the actual numbers who were sent home, but said it was a “handful” at “some” of the schools. He expects the numbers not in compliance to dwindle and more to return to school in the coming days, as they receive their vaccinations.

Brown-Hall said this happens to a certain extent every year, but the numbers were not tracked as closely by the district because the paperwork is usually handled by individual school nurses and principals, who work with families to get their children caught up on their vaccinations while the kids are still in school.

This year was different.

Brown-Hall, in fact, acknowledged that there has been a lot of confusion since the new state law took effect eliminating the religious exemption.

“We really received no guidance when this was put out,” Brown-Hall said.

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