What state vaccine law changes would mean for Fairfield
FAIRFIELD — Proposed changes to statewide vaccination laws could impact more than 200 Fairfield children who are currently religiously exempt from requirements.
After much back and forth, Gov. Ned Lamont announced Monday that he will support repealing Connecticut’s religious exemption during the 2020 legislative session. If repealed by the General Assembly, students will no longer be excused on religious grounds from vaccinations required for school enrollment.
This comes in response to what state Public Health Commissioner Renee Coleman-Mitchell called a “troubling trend” of decreases in vaccinations in the past few years. A recent state Department of Health survey showed that over 100 schools in Connecticut fall below the federally recommended 95-percent immunization rate.
And with decreased vaccinations have come diseases. Measles, which was considered eradicated by use of vaccines in 2000, has had a resurgence in the U.S. Connecticut had three cases this year.
Connecticut’s religious exemption currently allows an unvaccinated student to enroll in school if their parent or guardian presents a statement that immunization is contrary to their religious beliefs.
In Fairfield, state Department of Health data from the 2017-2018 school year showed small but existing numbers of students with religious exemptions. According to the state’s survey and Fairfield enrollment counts from September 2017, about 214 of Fairfield’s 9,885 public school students - just over two percent - had religious exemptions from vaccines that year.
The highest percentage of religiously exempt students was at the Early Childhood Center, with 7.7 percent. Rates fell between zero and four percent at all other Fairfield Public Schools, with Jennings having the highest rate of 4.2 percent, and North Stratfield having the lowest rate of 0.3 percent.
Schools Superintendent Mike Cummings did not comment on specifics of how the district will react to proposed changes for this group of students, but he said that “we do bear a responsibility to protect the health of all children in our care.”
Health Department Director Sands Cleary said that if regulations change, the town will follow suit and no longer accept religious exemptions for these students to enroll in school.
“The Fairfield Health Department enforces the statues and regulations of the state,” Cleary said. “Currently religious exemptions are allowed; if that changes, we will be obligated to enforce that change.”
Vaccination laws also apply to private schools, and Fairfield’s independent schools have students with religious exemptions as well.
State Department of Health data showed that in the 2017-2018 school year, religious exemptions fell between zero and three percent for Assumption Catholic School, Eagle Hill Southport, Fairfield College-Preparatory, Fairfield Country Day School, Notre Dame Catholic School and Saint Thomas Aquinas Catholic School.
Religious exemption percentages were higher at the Unquowa School, with a rate of 9.4 percent. School administrators declined to comment on reactions to proposed law changes.
Giant Steps Connecticut School showed even higher rates of religious exemptions. At 34.2 percent, the school has among the highest rates of religious exemption in the state.
Giant Steps, affiliated with the American Institute for Neuro-Integrative Development, serves students with autism spectrum disorders and other neurological impairments.
Executive Director Darci LaBash said that although the school’s percentage of religiously exempt students is high, their low enrollment of about 40 students means that a proposed law change would only affect a small number of roughly 14 students.
If the law does change, LaBash said, the school will work with families as they adjust procedures to meet state requirements.
“Giant Steps Connecticut School has always and will continue to meet the standards and requirements of the state,” LaBash said. “While this proposed change will impact some families’ choices, we as a school will adjust accordingly… We would support each family in finding the best solution for their situation.”
The Connecticut General Assembly’s 2020 regular legislative session will convene on Feb. 5.