ROCKLAND COUNTY, N.Y. – Nine charedi Rockland County schools were fined a combined $80,000 last week for failing to comply with the Rockland County Department of Health (RCDOH) amidst an ongoing measles outbreak.
Rockland County legislator Aron Wieder, however, claims the fines were politically-motivated. “Cooperation between the Health Department and the local yeshivos,” he told The Jewish Press, “was going smoothly until one day it was like working with a different entity.”
School administrators who spoke to The Jewish Press on condition of anonymity, fearing reprisals by local government officials, tell the same story. “The Rockland County Department of Health and the schools were all working together as they have been since November when all of the sudden, the Health Department made a 360-degree turn,” one administrator said.
The nine fined schools are:
Ateres Bnos – $24,750
Avir Yakov (boys and girls) – $5,950
Bais Chana Malka – $5,950
Bnei Yakov Yosef – $6,950
The Skill Building Center – $5,750
Yeshiva Ohr Torah – $6,950
Yeshiva Tzoin Yosef Pupa (Boys) – $6,950
Yeshiva Tzoin Yosef Pupa (Girls) – $6,950
The Rockland County measles outbreak began after Sukkos (to date, there have been 96 confirmed reported cases), which led the Rockland County Department of Health to order 30 schools in Monsey that allegedly had a less-than-80-percent vaccination rate to submit their students’ immunization records to the department and provide weekly updates.
Twenty-one of these schools satisfied the RCDOH’s requirements while nine schools requested – and were granted – extensions. But then two weeks ago, in a sudden about-face, the schools were threatened with steep fines of $2,000 per day of non-compliance dating back to November 15, the day the RCDOH sent its first letter on the measles outbreak to schools, administrators say.
According to these administrators, some of the yeshivos considered going to court, which is probably why, they said, the Health Department then substantially lowered its fines as it feared it would lose.
“The TRUTH,” Wieder wrote in an open letter to Rockland County Executive Ed Day on Thursday, “is that these nine private schools, some of them with small staffs and shoestring budgets, were already 90 percent in compliance before any threat of fines arose. They had provided the vast majority of student immunization records and simply needed an additional week to fully complete the information.”
Day, however, told The Jewish Press that the schools didn’t cooperate at all with the Health Department “until they were brought in to the hearings” on Wednesday, December 19, where they were fined even though they were in complete compliance with the requirements by that time.
Yeshiva administrators say their schools had to sift through hundreds and, in some cases, thousands of records to meet the RCDOH’s requirements. One school administrator said the health commissioner told him to “get volunteers to do it.”
“This was not a job for volunteers,” the administrator said. “No school wanted to take the chance that their records weren’t 100 percent accurate. It required the work of qualified individuals, and the schools couldn’t just drop everything to produce the newly required paperwork by the next day. There were parents to call, doctors offices to deal with. None of this was an overnight process.”
“I had to throw my next-door neighbor’s children out of school,” said another school administrator whose school was fined because it couldn’t provide his students’ immunization dates fast enough. I asked the Health Department how providing the exact day of immunization will help stop the spread of measles. They had no answer.”
“Schools were fined,” said another administrator, “not for not excluding unvaccinated children, but rather for not providing an Excel file with dates when the Health Department already had lists detailing which children had been immunized.”
“There was no one to talk to at the meeting,” said yet another school administrator. “We were told we could pay 10 percent of the fine by 9 a.m. the next morning or that our case would be presented to the commissioner the next day without allowing us a say. Given the way things were going, there was no way we were going to win that case the next day, so we paid.”
At least one yeshiva consulted with an attorney, who said it had a strong case, but his retainer was $10,000, so the yeshiva decided it was better off paying the fine and putting the matter behind it rather than risk further retaliation from a Rockland County governing body.
“It felt like I was living in Communist Russia,” said a school administrator. “They would pick you up in the middle of the night and tell you, ‘You’re getting 20 years in Siberia unless you signed a bogus confession right away in which case you will only get five years.’ Of course, you would sign!”
Legislator Wieder and others claim Day wishes to gain political points by presenting himself to the public as the man who made recalcitrant yeshivos comply with the law.
When asked by The Jewish Press, however, who was behind the crackdown on the yeshivos, Commissioner Day said, “The entirety of the matter was solely handled and directed by the Commissioner of Health as it was a health issue.” He added, “I provided necessary logistical support to her decisions.”
Wieder tells a different story, but Day disputes it. “Legislator Wieder’s statements are inaccurate,” he said.