Debating the Impact of Eliminating Connecticut’s Religious Exemption to Vaccination

On Wednesday, the legislature’s public health committee voted to send two identical bills, one to the House and one to the Senate, that would eliminate the ability of parents to claim a religious exemption to vaccinating their children. If the legislation becomes law, both public and private school students in Connecticut who are not vaccinated by the fall of 2022 will not be allowed to enroll or re-enroll in kindergarten through sixth grade classes.

Jody Terranova, assistant professor of pediatrics at the University of Connecticut School of Medicine and president-elect and immunization representative for the Connecticut chapter of the American Academy of Pediatrics, said that she is fully in support of the bill. 

“We really want to be preventative and not reactive,” said Terranova.

Data provided by the state’s Department of Public Health shows that this legislation would have a significant effect on small private schools. 

According to 2019-2020 data from the state, the 6.7 percent of kindergartners who attended private schools made up 16.3 percent of claimed religious exemptions. In the same year, the 8.5 percent of seventh graders who attended private schools accounted for 12 percent of religious exemptions. 

Of the 31 schools in Connecticut with more 10 percent of students claiming a religious exemption, seven are Montessori schools and 12 are religiously-affiliated.

Marci Martindale, head of school at The Children’s Tree Montessori School in Old Saybrook, told CT Examiner that the legislation would have a “tremendous” impact on the school. Of the roughly 80 children attending the school, about 24 percent currently claim a religious exemption — one of the highest rates of any school in the state.  

The legislation would require all students to be vaccinated for a number of diseases including  diphtheria, pertussis, tetanus, poliomyelitis, measles, mumps, rubella and haemophilus influenzae type B. The bill would not require vaccination for COVID-19.

According to Martindale, most students at The Children’s Tree have received nearly all of these vaccinations, but their parents have qualms about one or two particular vaccines, such as the Hepatitis B vaccine, and the annual influenza shot which is required for children under the age of five. 

“They are doctors, they are attorneys, they are professors,” she said of the parents. “They have done their research, and they have their belief that this could be harmful.” 

For Martindale, vaccination is a matter of parental rights and government overreach. 

“I don’t think it’s my place or the government’s place to dictate that,” said Martindale.

Republican legislators, including State Sen. Tony Hwang, R-Fairfield, State Rep. Whit Betts, R-Bristol, and State Sen. Heather Somers, R-Groton, suggested during a public health committee meeting on March 31 that, rather than mandate vaccination, there should be more of an effort made toward educating individuals about vaccines and the importance of vaccinating children.

Terranova, however, said that education alone has not been sufficient to stem the growing number of parents claiming religious exemptions, which rose from 1.4% of students in 2012 to 2.3% in 2019. She attributes the rising numbers to an overall mistrust of science and pharmaceutical companies. 

“Obviously, social media has helped people really spread that message,” said Terranova.  

State Rep. Sean Scanlon, D-Guilford, and State Rep. Kathleen McCarty, R-Waterford, said during the March 31 meeting that they were concerned about removing children between kindergarten and sixth grade from the schools if they were not vaccinated. Scanlon said he planned to introduce an amendment to the bill once it reached the floor of the House that would grandfather in all current students. 

“What I do have a little bit of a problem with is the notion that children who cannot make a decision for themselves will be the ones who are hurt by this decision,” said Scanlon. 

According to state data, 107 of 1,342 schools in Connecticut — 45 public and 46 private — reported a student vaccination rate of less than 95 percent during the 2019-20 school year — a figure that includes both medical and religious exemptions. Private schools accounted for 29 out of the 33 schools with less than a 90 percent vaccination rate. 46 schools failed to provide any data.

Terranova said that the Centers for Disease Control recommends a 95 percent vaccination rate to prevent an outbreak of measles, for example.

Religious schools and private Montessori schools tend to have smaller enrollments than public schools, meaning that even a handful of exemptions could easily push the rates below a 95 percent threshold. 

Pastor Jim Loomer, of the Milford Christian Church which operates Milford Christian Academy, said that out of 30 children, he estimates that about one in five request religious exemptions for vaccination. 

Loomer said he is “100 percent against” the idea of mandating that children be vaccinated. 

“Their parents are very much opposed to it,” he said. “They’ve done a lot of personal research, they are very afraid of the vaccines.” 

Pamela Wilkinson, director of North Stonington Christian Academy, said her school currently enrolls about 50 students. According to state data, 25 percent claim a religious exemption.

Wilkinson, like Loomer, said that the number of parents asking for an exemption is very small.

According to Wilkinson, one the greatest concerns for parents is that the COVID-19 vaccination will eventually be made mandatory. She said that some of her parents have protested at the capitol against the legislation. 

“It’s taking away the opportunity to have a christian education, or even a private school education,” she said. 

A shift toward homeschooling?   

Loomer said he could imagine parents deciding to homeschool rather than vaccinate — especially parents with younger children.

“They’re bright enough parents,” he said, “I would consider them capable of homeschooling.” 

Martindale said she believed that most of the parents at The Children’s Tree who are claiming a  religious exemption would pull a child from school rather than vaccinate them. 

“I think they are going to homeschool, and schools like ours are going to suffer immensely, more than we already have [during COVID],” she said. 

But Sherrie Clune, head of school at Oak Grove Montessori School in Mansfield, disagreed.  Clune said that mandating vaccines will push parents to vaccinate their children, especially when homeschooling isn’t an option.

“Where would people go?” she said. “I honestly don’t think the families can readjust their whole lives in order to homeschool.” 

According to Clune, her school typically enrolls about 72 students — a number that has dropped to 42 during the pandemic — and in 2019 about 18 percent claimed a religious exemption. 

But Clune said that any child leaving is a loss to the school.

“We value every family that we have here at the Montessori school,” she said. “They are part of our family.”

Terranova said that even if families opt to homeschool rather than vaccinate, that doesn’t wholly defeat the purpose of the legislation, and would protect children who can’t be vaccinated because of a medical condition.

She said that living in a pandemic has made the possibility of an outbreak of other diseases, like measles, more real. 

“When we testified last year … [it was] ‘Could you imagine, could you imagine?’” she said. “Now we don’t have to imagine.”

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