Religious exemptions to mandatory vaccines are increasing at some CT schools

At a handful of mostly small private schools in Connecticut, there has been a surge in the number of students receiving exemptions from vaccination requirements due to allegations it conflicts with their religious beliefs, according to new state data, causing concern among some health experts. .

The increase in religious exemptions at some K-12 schools comes as a state law is due to go into full effect in September eliminating the right for all prospective students to cite their faith as an acceptable reason. to circumvent mandatory vaccines.

These necessary vaccines protect against a variety of long-standing diseases such as poliomyelitis, measles and tetanus. COVID-19 vaccines are not required in Connecticut schools.

At Torrington Christian Academy, which enrolled 88 students in the 2020-2021 year, religious exemptions tripled between 2019 and 2020 and the school now has the second highest rate of students receiving an exemption religious about vaccines.

A school spokeswoman attributed the spike in religious exemptions to a “sharp increase” in the number of parents requesting them before the law was passed.

“Many of them expressed a desire to have an exemption on file if a vaccine happened to be on the schedule at a time that they religiously disagreed with,” she said.

But, she said, that doesn’t mean people actually chose not to get vaccines, and “those families were/are up to date on their vaccines.”

Dr. John Schreiber, medical director of infection control at Connecticut Children’s Medical Center in Hartford, said that while religious beliefs should be respected, strong vaccine requirements are important to maintain public health. Schools with a high number of religious exemptions could put their population at risk.

High percentages of students without required vaccines put schools at risk of an outbreak, he said.

In April 2021, Connecticut became the sixth state to ban school vaccine exemptions on religious grounds, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

For children in kindergarten through 12th grade, a religious exemption will remain valid for the remainder of their time in Connecticut schools provided the exemption was filed by April 27, 2021. However, religious exemptions for students of pre-K will no longer be valid from September 1 of this year.

All students are still eligible for exemptions for medical reasons. When they banned religious exemptions, state legislators took steps to make it easier for families to access medical exemptions.

A lawsuit filed against the state and several school boards in federal court seeking to restore the right to religious exemptions failed in January. Since then, other challenges have been filed. In a lawsuit filed in April, the plaintiffs objected to the use of cell lines from aborted fetuses used in the development of certain vaccines.

Overall, among the state’s roughly 1,300 schools, religious exemptions to school-required vaccines remain relatively rare, though they have increased slightly in recent years, from 1.4 percent in 2012 to 2.3% of students in 2020, according to data from the Department. of Public Health. The number of denominational waivers peaked in 2018 at 2.5%. The national average stands at 1.9%, according to the Ministry of Public Health.

In some schools, there was a dramatic increase in the number of students with religious exemptions between the 2019-20 and 2020-21 school years, the latest years of data available.

At Heritage Baptist Academy in Wallingford, which enrolled 65 students in 2020-21, 79% of students claimed religious exemption from state-mandated vaccines, up from just 2% the previous year. A representative for the school, which had the highest exemption rate in the state in 2020-21, declined to comment.

No other school has seen such a large increase in the percentage of students granted waivers.

Officials at other Connecticut schools that have seen significant increases in religious exemptions — including Hartford Seventh Day Adventist, Central Christian Academy and Midstate Christian Academy — did not respond to requests for comment last week.

These schools are among two dozen that have rates of students with religious exemptions above 10%. All but one are private schools and all are small.

At Housatonic Valley School in Newtown, which had the highest exemption rate in 2019 and the third highest in 2020, Christina Dixcy, the school’s communications director, said she “cannot speculate on the reasons for which the parents have chosen to vaccinate or not”.

Nearly half of students at Housatonic Valley School are claiming religious exemption, a figure slightly lower than the previous year. Dixcy said the school would follow public health guidelines in the event of an outbreak.

“All parents enrolling for the first time in a CT school will learn that vaccines are required unless they already have a valid exemption on file, so this will affect all schools, not just ours. “, she said. “If we ever had an outbreak detected at school for a vaccine-preventable disease, unvaccinated children would have to stay home in quarantine during the incubation period for that disease.”

Eric Scoville, a spokesman for the state Department of Education, said the agency does not oversee private schools, and he pointed out that blanket religious exemptions “are in the single digits.” In 2020-21, 146 schools had no religious exemptions.

“We have provided guidance to schools (including non-public schools) regarding vaccination schedules and changing the law,” he said. “We will be releasing additional communications this summer to schools.”

Data from the state Department of Public Health shows that the percentage of school children who received state-mandated vaccines dropped during COVID-19, after years of steady decline. Experts and national education officials have attributed the decline in vaccinations to difficulty getting medical appointments and growing vaccine hesitancy.

Overall, the vaccination rate against these several diseases has hovered between 95% and 96% for the 2020-2021 school year depending on the vaccine, down one point from the school year before the start of the school year. the pandemic, and a drop of a peak of 97% in the 2012-2013 school year, the first year for which data is available.

Experts say even such modest drops in vaccination rates are concerning.

In a statement, Chris Boyle, spokesperson for the Department of Public Health, said that with the law in effect for more than a year, the department is not making special efforts to contact schools or parents where religious exemption rates are high.

“We expect all children to be properly vaccinated in order to enter school as required,” he said. “It’s the same requirement as in previous years, and we have no reason to believe that the coming year will be any different.”

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