As the leader of an organization advocating for education equity and excellence, I don’t often find myself speaking out on health issues. However, there’s a debate taking place right now at the State Capitol which, I believe, requires all of us to raise our voices. I’m talking about the brave efforts by some legislative leaders to remove the existing religious exemption from school vaccinations.
Hopefully we can all agree that our schools ought to be trusted spaces for children to learn and grow. Across the country, there is a vibrant discussion regarding what entails a safe school climate, whether it is advocating for state and federal governments to pass commonsense gun control laws, or educating our students and staff about how to stop bullying (both in person and online). These conversations need to be oriented around the collective good and what will help the most students. In Connecticut, we’ve taken significant strides in order to ensure for our students a safe school climate.
Now, in order to continue making our schools healthy environments for students to learn and grow, we must make sure that when parents drop their children off at a public school, they can do so with a reasonable expectation that their kids will be protected from preventable disease, especially at such a vulnerable stage in their lives.
Recently, the Connecticut State Department of Public Health released its annual report regarding school vaccination levels. The Centers for Disease Control establishes a 95 percent vaccination rate as achieving “herd immunity,” which means the community is protecting those that are unable to get vaccinated because of age or compromised health reasons, against the spread of preventable disease. In Connecticut, more than 100 schools now have vaccination rates lower than that.
Parents can exempt their children from vaccination for one of two reasons. First, for medical conditions which are contraindicated. Alternatively, a religious exemption requires parents to check a box that says immunizations are contrary to the family’s beliefs. In Connecticut, there appears to be a correlation: as vaccinations for kindergarteners have dropped since 2012, the religious exemptions have increased at the same rate.
Simply put, Connecticut is falling short when it comes to giving our students a safe and healthy environment in which to learn. There are already too many hurdles to student success — and we’ll continue to fight on those every day. Potential exposure to diseases that are preventable should not be another one.
None of this is to say that these are easy decisions for legislators. Our representatives in state government must, of course, be cautious when they regulate personal freedoms. Many state leaders are being appropriately careful. Attorney General William Tong has taken a deliberative approach, and recently affirmed that the legislature and the governor have “well settled power to protect public safety and health”. That decision came at the request of House Majority Leader Matt Ritter, who has proceeded with caution but determination as he requested this legal opinion on “the constitutionality of eliminating the religious exemption for required immunizations.”
But as important as personal freedoms are, the needs of the greater community — and especially the needs of children — have to outweigh other priorities. When something so fundamental is at risk, it’s imperative that our elected officials take action. And it’s clear that the most basic, impactful action would be to remove religious exemptions from the law. Much like bans on smoking in public spaces, or requiring those that drive to obey the speed limit, there comes a time when legislators need to put the basic, broader health needs of all communities ahead of other concerns.
In the past I’ve written publicly to advocate for progressive values in reforming our education system. Every student has the right to a safe and healthy classroom regardless of where they live or who their parents are. I applaud and support our elected officials for taking whatever action they can to propel education policy forward, in this case, by protecting children’s health in a place where every child should feel safe and protected: the classroom.
Amy Dowell is the state director of Education Reform Now CT and its affiliate organization, Democrats For Education Reform. Learn more at dferct.org.
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