OLEAN — New York’s new state law eliminating the religious exemption to student immunizations could spell t-r-o-u-b-l-e for Cattaraugus County’s 20 private Amish schools.
As the new school year is about to open in two weeks, others are also caught up in the new immunization rules for students who formerly had religious exemptions. Only medical exemptions will be permitted come September.
The percent for religious exemption in Cattaraugus County ranged from a high of 100% in the 20 Amish schools and 21.4% at Central Baptist Christian School.
Two public schools in the county have religious exemption rates over 1%: Ellicottville’s rate is 1.86% and West Valleys is 2.31 %.
Other county school district’s religious exemption rates include: Allegany-Limestone, 0.27%; Cattaraugus-Little Valley, 0.83%; Franklinville, 0.47%; Gowanda, 0.43%; Hinsdale, 0.53; Olean City Schools, 0.29%; Portville, 0.63%; Randolph, 0.11; Salamanca City Schools, 0.7%, and Yorkshire, 0.84%. Archbishop Walsh High School had a 0.0% religious exemption and BOCES 0.48%.
Cattaraugus County Public Health Director Dr. Kevin Watkins plans to meet Monday with school superintendents “to make sure we are all on the same page on how the new regulations will be implemented.”
The state Department of Health has told county Health Departments “to move forward” on enforcing the elimination of the religious exemption for childhood immunizations, Watkins said.
“We will be working with school nurses to make sure we have 100% compliance,” Watkins said in an interview Friday. Those students who are unvaccinated will not be allowed to attend school.
“As far as the Amish community, we are still up in the air,” Watkins said. “We are in touch with state health officials” regarding their position on unvaccinated Amish children riding school buses with public school students.
“Hopefully, we’ll have an answer by Monday,” Watkins said.
Allegany County Public Health Director Lori Ballengee will also attend the superintendents meeting at BOCES on Monday, Watkins said.
The claim that Amish schools, which often have between 20 and 30 students, are not affected by removing the religious exemption because they do not receive state aid is without merit, Watkins said.
“The state says they must comply will all immunization requirements,” the public health director said.
The Amish communities in Cattaraugus and Allegany counties have largely shunned immunization on religious grounds. There was some voluntary immunization of Amish children in western Cattaraugus County back in the 1990s when there was an outbreak of mumps.
Mostly, Amish leaders thank health officials for their concern, but generally decline vaccinations.
“School superintendents and the Health Department will work together to come up with a plan — before the upcoming school season,” Watkins said.
The public health director said he also plans to meet with Amish bishops to discuss the new immunization regulations “and see if we can offer them a way to meet the state regulations by offering them vaccines.”
Watkins said he hoped it didn’t come down to the Board of Health restricting Amish children “from attending school or riding school buses.”
Watkins said he would “continue to work with the state to try to work out a plan” and “meet with the Amish bishops and community” to help them understand the importance of immunization.
Watkins said because some individuals have true medical exemptions from vaccinations, it’s all the more important that others be vaccinated. “We need to protect those who cannot be vaccinated,” he said.
“What if they (someone with a medical exemption) are exposed to someone who had a preventable disease like measles or whooping cough?” Watkins asked. “It’s not fair when someone who could prevent these types of diseases is unvaccinated.”
Watkins added: “Hopefully, we can get a buy-in on vaccinations from our Amish community.”