Should Unvaccinated Kids Have the Right to Go to School?

Fact: In the last several years, there have been outbreaks of measles and whooping cough across the U.S., in communities where some families choose not to vaccinate. Fact: Some parents believe all of the false Internet hype and natural mama manifestos that claim vaccines are dangerous, that vaccines are unnecessary, and that vaccines don’t always work anyway. Fact: If the number of people vaccinated in our communities drops below an 80 to 90 percent majority, then even those who are vaccinated will become susceptible to harmful, even life-threatening illnesses.

If you happen to stumble upon one of the anti-vax websites, you’ll likely see “articles” and lengthy threads where impassioned parents claim that our vaccinated kids are protected by herd immunity. First of all, thanks. So their plan is basically to use our kids as a buffer to protect their own? Second of all, they’re just plain wrong. Vaccines work, they do, but they’re not 100 percent effective for everyone. If an unvaccinated kid sits down in his kindergarten class, unknowingly infected by measles, he could absolutely spread the disease to another child in his class. Or give it to the immune-compromised mother going through chemo. Or the newborn baby sister who hasn’t had her shots yet. 

That’s why a Federal District Court judge in Brooklyn, New York, ruled last week that parents don’t have a right to send their unvaccinated kids to school, even if their anti-vax stance is religious. I’m sorry, but if there’s an outbreak of measles in my community, I don’t want their unvaccinated kids anywhere near my kids. When my children are in my care, I do damn near everything I can to protect them. When they’re at school, I’m trusting administrators to keep my kids safe. It’s their responsibility to do so, and they know it and they own it. If an unvaccinated child poses a health risk to the other students, then hell no, he or she shouldn’t be in school. While I’m sorry that a child has to miss out (and sorry that his parents are so misinformed about his medical care), I don’t believe his rights are more important than the health and safety of all the other children.

No one is forcing families to vaccinate their kids. No one is arresting anti-vax parents or issuing them steep fines or segregating their children. All states allow exemption from vaccination requirements if a child happens to be allergic. Forty-eight states allow exemption on religious grounds. Some even allow exemption for personal beliefs. These kids are allowed to attend public schools…except maybe not when there’s an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable illness. I believe, as the NYC judge does, that even though families might have the right to skip vaccines, it doesn’t give them the right to potentially infect others.

If one of my kids has a runny nose, I keep him home from school, not because I love to sit around watching Handy Manny all day, but because I don’t want any other kids to get sick. I would hope that a parent whose kid is not vaccinated would be just as considerate if a scary virus was going around. We shouldn’t need a court to enforce good morals, citizenship, and positive karma, but I’m glad the Brooklyn court did. My guess is that as we begin to see more and more outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases, we’ll begin to see more rulings like this one.

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