December 18, 2018

No shots, no school: How SB 277 impacts local Jewish schools

On June 30, Senate Bill 277 was signed into law. The California bill puts an end to religious and personal belief exemptions for childhood vaccinations, and requires that all children enrolled in school or day care be immunized against 10 diseases, including measles, mumps, whooping cough (pertussis) and chickenpox. (Medical exemptions are still allowed, and there are time-limited accommodations for children with existing religious or personal belief exemptions.) The law will not apply to students who are homeschooled or enrolled in an independent study program. Although there is a commonly held belief that private schools are not subject to these regulations, the law applies to all day-care centers and K-12 schools, including Jewish schools. 

Temple Beth Hillel’s Rabbi Sarah Hronsky, for one, is pleased with the new legislation. She said she considers vaccination “a Jewish thing philosophically, because it preserves and saves a life. This value is called pikuach nefesh.” 

Added Hronsky: “[SB 277] gives private schools a leg to stand on, whereas in the past, it was really hard to enforce. Even though we may be really pushing that it’s a good thing for the sake of the community,” the school couldn’t force anyone to vaccinate their child. But, if a student in the Valley Village temple’s early childhood program or day school had a personal or religious belief exemption, the school, per state mandate, did require them to consult with a pediatrician. That said, the culture among Temple Beth Hillel families is to vaccinate; for the most part, that is the culture at L.A.-area Jewish schools. 

That also is largely the case for L.A.-area schools overall. Los Angeles County has long had some of the highest vaccination rates in the state: Upward of 98 percent of kindergartners this past school year had all required immunizations, according to the California Department of Public Health. In Santa Cruz County, by comparison, the number was closer to 90 percent. 

Although there are L.A. neighborhoods and individual schools where the rates are not nearly as high, at the Jewish schools we contacted in addition to Temple Beth Hillel (Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center, de Toledo High School, Kehillat Israel, Kadima Day School, Weizmann Day School, Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School and Wise School), administrators could count on one hand the number of students with personal belief or religious exemptions on file.

This means that when the legislation goes into effect on July 1 of next year, it will pretty much be business as usual at local Jewish schools. Nevertheless, the Silverlake Independent Jewish Community Center (SIJCC) preschool, where 110 children are enrolled, will begin preparing parents for the legal change now.

“It will be part of our discussion at the new family orientation” in advance of the start of school in September, said Elizabeth McGrath Schwandt, director of early childhood education at the school. “Although we have these unbelievably high compliance rates, it doesn’t mean it’s not a difficult or fraught issue for our families. We want to make sure people have a safe and open forum.

“We actually have a current parent who was one of the leading advocates of that legislation. She’s going to be available to help answer any questions that come up,” she said.

That parent is Renee Dubie-van Beever. Although she is an attorney, Dubie-van Beever said her work on behalf of Vaccinate California was “95 percent parent, 5 percent attorney.” 

“My feeling is, we always need to take up for the weakest among us: kids too young to be vaccinated, the immuno-compromised,” she said. “At the school, by and large, everyone is on the same page as to why this is so important. There is a real sense of community, that we all put in for the greater good. When you branch out to the wider community, that seems to fall away.”

At de Toledo High School (formerly New Community Jewish High School) in West Hills, two of the 400 students enrolled last year had exemptions, and none of the incoming ninth-graders who have turned in paperwork thus far do. The only change, said school principal Ellen Howard, is: “Once the law becomes effective, if we get a new student who wants to submit a personal affidavit, we can’t take it. … I don’t see [SB 277] as anything that will impact enrollment because of our history of not having large numbers of exemptions for personal beliefs.”

At Kehillat Israel in Pacific Palisades, where “the passion is for vaccinating,” according to Julie Dubron, director of the early childhood center, “The effect of [SB 277] will be reassuring to some parents. [They] will feel better knowing every other child in their school is also immunized, whereas now there could be some ambiguity.” 

“I’m certain there are people who feel like their rights are being taken away,” Hronsky said. “To that I would say we are obligated. For the sake of those who cannot be protected, we stand as a community.” 

Or, as she wrote in a recent temple newsletter, “For Jews, we live in this world as a ‘we’ not an ‘I.’ ”