OLEAN — Amish school children in Cattaraugus County will probably have to find another way to school this fall if they currently are transported by school bus along with public school students.

New York’s new vaccination regulations eliminating religious exemptions — such as those claimed by the Amish — go into effect this September at the start of the school year.

It also applies to private schools, Headstart and other Pre-K programs.

The new state vaccination requirements may also keep some public school children out of school if they cannot prove they have started and have appointments for a six-week vaccination program from a physician.

Dr. Kevin Watkins, Cattaraugus County public health director, said he expects to meet with school superintendents next week to discuss what options schools face in the elimination of the religious exemption.

The options are limited, Watkins indicated. Schools can either refuse to transport Amish children who are unvaccinated or transport them in a separate bus from public school students.

The New York State Department of Health is considering a statewide response to the issue Watkins and others raised with state health officials last month, but for now, it’s up to each county board of health.

County Attorney Thomas Brady said the state Health Department should issue a statewide decision regarding the new law rather than leave it to 55 county health departments. The legislation is so new, he advised the board to “ride it out” and see what action the state takes.

There are about 20 private Amish schools, each with between 20 and 30 students, Watkins said.

They have 100% religious exemption to vaccinations. Most other county schools have religious exemption rates of less than 1%, with only six districts having buildings above 1%.

Some Amish children ride public school transportation to their schools. Watkins said he did not know yet how many Amish school children currently ride school buses.

“We could order school districts to get special buses for the Amish,” the public health director said.

“Multiple counties have asked the state for direction on this,” Watkins told Board of Health members.

The legislation was signed in June by Gov. Andew Cuomo, who cited the New York City-area measles outbreak as reason for the end to religious exemptions for vaccinations.

Watkins said the state also tightened requirements for a medical exemption for vaccinations. They may no longer be granted by a nurse practitioner or physician’s assistant. A physician must grant the exemption, he said.

What about home-schooled students, one Board of Health member asked?

Watkins said if a home-schooled student is not going to school, they wouldn’t need to be vaccinated “as long as they are not going to school.” But, if they participated in sports, or were to use the school library, “then they will be required to be vaccinated.”

Watkins added: “We only have a week to make a decision.”

The public health director told the board, “It’s time to sit down with the (Amish) bishops to see if we can come to some kind of understanding.”

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)

(Contact reporter Rick Miller at rmiller@oleantimesherald.com. Follow him on Twitter, @RMillerOTH)

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