Photo Credit: AP Photo/Seth Wenig
A sign advertising free measles vaccines is displayed at the Rockland County Health Department in Pomona, N.Y., in March.

While the New York City and Rockland County departments of health have both been working furiously to get a seven month long measles outbreak under control, two yeshivahs have apparently been told by the New York State Education Department that their policy of refusing to accept religious exemptions for immunizations is in violation of the law.

A decision handed down by NYSED’s Office of Counsel on January 25 ruled in favor of a mother whose two children were enrolled at Yeshiva of Spring Valley in Monsey.

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The woman, identified only as M.S., said that one of her daughters was already a student in the yeshiva and a second had been accepted into kindergarten when she received an email shortly before the opening of the 2017-2018 school year informing her that her religious exemption to the school’s immunization policy had been denied and that her children would not be admitted to class. The decision came less than three months after the Rockland County health commissioner ordered all unimmunized children in Monsey and Spring Valley who attended schools with vaccination rates at or below the 70 percent level to stay home for 21 days after the last confirmed case of measles was reported.

Under New York Public Health Law Section 2164, children cannot attend school without supplying proof of immunization against certain diseases, but the law does allow exemptions for those who have medical or “sincere religious beliefs” that preclude vaccinations. It also gives local counties the authority to suspend religious exemptions as they deem necessary in order to protect public health.

NYSED’s Office of Counsel found that Yeshiva of Spring Valley’s blanket statement that it does not accept any religious exemptions, without making any attempt to review the sincerity of the request, was in violation of state law. The school was ordered to review all documentation submitted by M.S., which included a signed statement of her beliefs and a rabbinical statement, and to make its decision on allowing M.S.’s children to attend school in accordance with state laws and regulations.

An anonymous source told The Jewish Press that a Long Island yeshiva recently found itself in the same predicament as Yeshiva of Spring Valley when a parent challenged its policy of refusing all religious exemptions. The school did not immediately respond to a request for comment on the matter.

Nine New York City yeshivahs have already been closed by the city’s Department of Health for failing to comply with an order to exclude unvaccinated children for 21 days after a known measles exposure. An April order by New York City Health Commissioner Dr. Oxiris Barbot requires every adult and child who lives or works in certain Williamsburg area zip codes to be vaccinated against the measles, but as of May 20, 523 confirmed cases of the measles have been reported in Brooklyn and Queens. Another 230 cases of the measles have been confirmed in Rockland County, where Yeshiva of Spring Valley is located and where the New York area measles outbreak first erupted.

Rockland County Executive Ed Day made headlines by declaring a state of emergency in March that banned unvaccinated minors from public places for 30 days and, more recently, by calling on Governor Cuomo to completely eliminate religious exemptions to vaccination requirements.

Multiple Jewish Press requests sent via email asking NYSED to clarify the scope of its involvement and any possible changes in policy due to the extended measles outbreak have yielded few results. NYSED deputy director of communications JP O’Hare told The Jewish Press that no one at the agency was available to speak on the matter via telephone, while other requests for comment submitted via email have gone unanswered.

Read the decision by the administrative judge in the Yeshiva of Spring Valley case here.

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