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Ithaca divided after new K-12 vaccination requirements

All children in grades K-12 are required to receive a full set of vaccinations before beginning the 2015-16 school year. The Ithaca City School District begins classes on Sept. 10.
By Kristen Gowdy and Frances Johnson

New statewide regulations, mandating that all children in grades K-12 must receive a full set of vaccinations before beginning the 2015-16 school year, took effect Sept. 1.

The mandate follows a long-running debate about the controversial subject, and Tompkins County parents remain divided on the issue.

Larissa Pollica, a registered nurse and mother of two in Ithaca, said she chose to delay vaccination for her daughters until they were one year old, but added that vaccinating should be a choice.

“I don’t think the state should force you to do anything, but I do understand the public health implications,” Pollica said. “Say 98 percent of the kids in the school are vaccinated, there’s a low chance of diseases moving through the school. If that number goes down because more kids aren’t getting immunized, then we’re going to have a very real issue with communicable diseases.”

In contrast, Jenneka McCarty, a mother of vaccinated children in Ithaca, said mandatory immunization is long overdue.

“These things have been tested and proven medically and the diseases they prevent are life-threatening and there’s that rationale behind it,” McCarty said. “The side effects here are generally going to be less than the cost of the disease itself.”

The new regulations include exemptions that cover both religious and medical exceptions. However, Judy Hoffman, Ithaca City School District head nurse, said exemptions are rare, and require the family to present notarized documentation in order to even be considered.

Right now, Hoffman said, the district is busy preparing for classes, which begin Sept. 10. Once classes begin, students have a 14-day grace period to receive their vaccinations, which include MMR, DTaP and polio, depending on students’ grade levels.

To ensure that all students receive their immunizations before school begins, the district, as well as the Tompkins County Department of Health, have been working with families to ease concerns.

“The nurses and all of the schools in the Ithaca City School District … are all working really hard to get the required documentation for students so they can stay in school,” Hoffman said. “In the ICSD, we send out a letter to all the families at the beginning of July that we don’t have the required documentation for, and let them know we will need this. We do a great job of not excluding students.”

Historically, Ithaca has not embraced vaccination as readily as the rest of Tompkins County, with six schools in the area exhibiting a below-average immunization rate, according to the 2012-13 State School Immunization Survey. The Ithaca Waldorf School had an immunization rate of 65.1 percent during the 2012–13 school year, which was the lowest in Ithaca. In comparison, Tompkins County sits at 95 percent.

Theresa Lyczko, Director of Public Information and the Health Promotion Program for the county’s health department, said she has received phone calls from concerned parents in the Ithaca area, and that she is working to help them resolve their objections.

“We work with them, we discuss with them about what their fears might be, what their objections might be,” she said. “Parents are concerned about their children, so depending on what they read or what they’ve heard in the media, that might influence their decisions.”

Despite media influence, some Tompkins County parents continue to immunize their children. Josh Eckenrode, an Ithaca parent who chose to vaccinate his children, said the choice was common sense.

“In the overall scope of public health, vaccination is incredibly important,” Eckenrode said. “Unless there’s some sort of medical necessity that the child cannot receive vaccination, they should, because it’s the responsibility of the parent to look at their lives and their children and to look at the overall health of the community. It’s a first-world issue that we’d even consider not to vaccinate.”

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