In New York, as new immunisation laws take effect, there has been a surge in parents home schooling their children.
When Jenni Mahnaz started a business working with parents who wanted to remove their children from the traditional school system seven years ago, there seemed to be little obvious need for what she would deliver. Unlike groovy precincts of the West Coast or evangelical communities in the South, New York — cynical, status-obsessed, frantically scheduled — is not an obvious place for the expansion of at-home education.
Her business, NY Homeschool Help, has grown steadily, but these past several weeks have been something else entirely. She has been besieged by parents from all across the demographic spectrum — white parents, black parents, divorced parents, single parents. The surge has had a distinct prompt.
Three months ago, amid a measles outbreak that sparked a public-health emergency, the state of New York ended religious exemptions for vaccines. These exemptions were always hard to justify, given that most religions have nothing to say about vaccination. Increasingly though, the loopholes had been exploited by people who feared, against overwhelming scientific evidence, that immunisation would compromise their children's well-being. Their devotion was attached to no church, in particular, but rather to a liturgy of misguided scepticism.
As the school year begins, it is becoming clear just how deep that devotion runs. On Monday, hundreds of parents gathered in Albany to protest the new regulations, arguing that the laws effectively amount to an eviction of their children from school. Compliance was out of the question. So what were the alternatives, really, other than to educate a child in the living room?
In 2016, after California implemented one of the strictest vaccination laws in the country, the number of home-schooled kindergartners without shots jumped from 1,500 that year to 5,000 the next and just under 7,000 by 2018.
Parents were willing to upend their lives, quit jobs, learn the new ways of long division, hire tutors, sit down and conjugate French verbs all for the purpose of avoiding a series of injections that would protect their children and the children of other families.
The parents who have come to Mahnaz seeking guidance are not easily categorised. "They are not from any particular class, or background or religion," she said. "The decision comes down to, 'Is this that important to you or isn't it?' That's the question. These parents don't feel as though they have a choice," she continued. "They don't feel as though they have been given any options."
What aligns them, it seems, is the feeling that their rights have been violated.
During the peak of the measles crisis earlier this year, attention was focused on vaccine resistance in a few ultra-Orthodox communities upstate and in Brooklyn, where the disease had erupted so ferociously, and among well-off bohemians drawn to the hand-knit, multigrain ways of Waldorf schools. But the clients going to see Mahnaz come from different worlds. Many are not opposed to vaccines outright. They want to reduce the number of vaccines their children get or have them administered on a schedule other than the one the state demands. They want the process to slow down.
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As it stands, the law requires eight different vaccines, given at different points and according to age, in order to attend school, either public or private. Children must receive the first dose in an immunisation series within two weeks of the first day that classes begin. Within a month, parents must also demonstrate that they have made appointments for follow-up doses.
Some of these parents are not refusing measles immunisation. "There are lots of people in the anti-vax community who don't buy the autism link," Mahnaz said. "They are not reading Jenny McCarthy. They are educated. They are not not vaccinating their kids because they are afraid of autism," she continued.
"The real issue for them is medical choice and bodily autonomy." Herd immunity though, has little patience for declarations about bodily autonomy.
It is hard not to wonder how many parents who reject vaccines on these grounds would welcome someone exercising his or her corporeal liberty by lighting a cigar, next to a 6-year old, in a playground. Around the country, many who have rallied against strengthening of vaccine regulations, including the activist Robert F. Kennedy Jr., have borrowed the language of the abortion rights movement. They have invoked the rhetoric of "my body, my choice," to suggest a hypocrisy embodied by those who might support reproductive freedom but not freedom to reject immunisations. The analogy, however, overlooks the fact that vaccination is a matter of public health, not merely personal well-being.
New York imposes some of the strictest regulations on home-schoolers in the country. Nevertheless, over the past few years, New York City has seen a steady uptick in the number of families that home-school, one presumably bound to continue. The initial paperwork alone can be overwhelming. Any parents unable to carve out hours of the day to teach children themselves must hire tutors to do the work. The commitment to autonomy — or paranoia — needs to override a host of other logistical or financial imperatives.
"People are making the choice to remove their children from school, and it can be an expensive workaround," said state Sen. Brad Holyman, D-Manhattan, the chief sponsor of the new legislation who has been baffled by the extreme reaction. "It all speaks to something so much larger, the fear of reason that seems to be everywhere."
Written by: Ginia Bellafante
© 2019 THE NEW YORK TIMES