CAPITAL REGION - When Brooke Jordan’s job changed last year, she lost the ability to stay at home during the day to homeschool her kids. So in April the family packed up and moved into a new home on a leafy subdivision road in the Shenendehowa School District.
Sydni, 13, the oldest of Jordan’s three children, last month started the school year in eighth grade in Shenedehowa, making quick friends and settling into life at her new school.
“I felt good to know I was doing it right, I knew what I was supposed to do,” Sydni said in a recent interview. “I liked having a whole lot of people around me.”
But even from the start, Sydni and her family knew her days in school may be limited: She doesn’t have all of her required vaccinations, and her parents are not planning on her getting them.
State lawmakers stripped a religious exemption from school vaccination requirements in June, a law the governor signed in July. So as New York’s new vaccine mandate took hold last month, Sydni prepared for her last day in class. She told her friends she wouldn’t be returning to school and explained her family wasn’t vaccinated because of religious beliefs – that meant she couldn’t come back, she tried to explain.
“I was scared at first to tell them, because they might judge me and their parents might say something,” Sydni said.“They were actually really upset about the whole situation. Even though they are just kids they are understanding it’s not right and stand behind me.”
“When I said bye, I didn’t say bye like I’ll never get to see you again,” she added.
Sydni and her siblings, a brother in fifth grade and a 5-year-old sister, now wake up each morning without a bus to catch or a first class to get to. They read and watch educational videos on YouTube; they also play Nintendo Switch and watch TV. With her parents at work, Sydni is in charge of her siblings.
Jordan is making plans to send her kids during the day to the Troy church where her dad works as a pastor for supervision. But she also needs to purchase laptops and an online curriculum for the kids to complete as they look to maintain educational progress. While the family has homeschooled in the past, Jordan said the reason the family moved to Shen was because they were ready to send their kids to public school. Without the flexibility to work from home and with her daughter narrowing in on high school, the family moved for the reason many families move: the schools.
“What we heard about Shen was Shen is good for arts, it’s good for sports, and it’s good for education,” Jordan said. “Those were the three things we wanted to make sure she had at her disposal. It was a calculated situation to come here for the purpose of the schools.”
They moved before state lawmakers, partly in response to an outbreak of the measles downstate, barred the use of religious exemptions in foregoing childhood vaccines. But families across the state, like the Jordans, have held fast to their religious objections and refused to submit to the state’s mandatory vaccine protocol, citing objections to how the vaccines were developed and pointing to a faith that their immune systems were created by a God to protect them from illness. Large portions of the state's Orthodox Jewish community have also cited religious objections and contested the vaccine mandate.
“We are a family that lives by faith, we are guided by our religion,” Jordan said. “If this was something I was supposed to do, get them vaccinated, I would have peace about it. But I don’t have peace about it, because I feel this is something I’m not supposed to do to them.”
Excluded from school
In a matter of months, the removal of the state’s religious exemption to childhood vaccine mandates has fundamentally altered the lives of thousands of families across the state. Last year, around 26,000 students across the state cited a religious exemption to vaccines. But schools this fall must ensure all students – except for a handful with medical exemptions from doctors – have documented receiving all eight vaccines required for school. Students who failed or refused to meet the requirements were excluded from school beginning in late September, 14 days after the start of school.
At the start of the school year, Capital Region school districts faced hundreds of students with incomplete vaccine records. But many of those families got caught up and returned to school or were allowed to stay as they finished up their outstanding vaccines.
Some families, though, refused to comply with the new mandate, leaving scores of students across the region and their families scrambling to rearrange their lives to balance work schedules with new homeschool operations.
“I sent my boys to school on day 15 as an act of civil disobedience,” said one Burnt Hills mother, whose kids haven’t met the requirements. “I was called to pick them up.”
As of Oct. 8, 14 students from Burnt Hills-Ballston Lake Central School District withdrew from school after refusing to meet the new vaccination requirements. Five students from Scotia-Glenville schools were similarly excluded for not meeting the requirements; six students in Mohonasen schools moved to homeschooling. In Saratoga Springs, the district excluded 66 students as of Sept. 20 but that number was down to about 10 students by Oct. 10, according to a district spokeswoman.
In Schenectady, over 300 students showed up at the start of the school year without all of their vaccines, and more students have joined the district since the start of school without all of the vaccines. But most, if not all, of those students have since fulfilled the vaccine requirements, said district spokeswoman Karen Corona.
The vaccine mandate also applies to private schools across the state, leaving families that refuse to vaccinate their children with not options but to homeschool. A spokeswoman for the Albany Catholic Diocese said the church was not aware of any Catholic school in the diocese that had to exclude a student for failure to meet vaccine requirements.
Parents who have refused to meet the new vaccine requirements in recent interviews lamented the state’s vaccine crackdown, expressed deeply-held religious objections to vaccinations and argued the state was discriminating against them for those beliefs.
“My kids were kicked out,” said Kim Moynihan, a Burnt Hills parent with three children, a high school junior, a sixth grader and a seventh grader. “We did not choose to leave school.”
Moynihan, who works as a chiropractor in the area, said she and her husband have looked into moving to Massachusetts, close enough to still commute to the Capital Region for work but in a state still willing to accept their religious exemption. They haven’t committed to a move but they haven’t ruled it out either, she said.
She has changed her work hours to spend more time with her kids at home, and the family has purchased homeschool materials and sought out other homeschool families to join with in activities.
At the root of their arguments against the vaccine mandate, the parents think the government should not be empowered to withhold their child’s public education as the price of refusing a medical procedure they don’t want for their kids. “We will fight for our right to choose,” Moynihan said.
Legal challenges to the vaccine mandate are still pending in state and federal court, but multiple judges have rejected requests to stay the school prohibition until the courts can sort through the challenges.
Some of the parents argued the state should have given them more time to prepare for the transition to homeschool, or submit to the vaccines. They point out that not being vaccinated for the measles doesn’t mean their kids have the measles and said if their kids were sick, they would keep them home from school, citing the many years their kids had attended schools not vaccinated and without incident. The parents emphasized the high cost of homeschooling and contended their local schools should be made to provide them with curriculum and special education services.
Multiple parents interviewed for this article did not want their names used, citing concerns about potentially negative public reaction. For some students, the abrupt withdrawal from public school comes as they were set to enter their final year of high school.
“It’s kind of sad that she’s been working for 13 years now, this is her thirteenth year now, and she won’t be able to walk across the stage and graduate,” one mom said of her daughter, who was entering her senior year of high school.
The mother has three kids, the senior, a high school freshman and a third grader. She said the family pays about $500 a month for an online curriculum for the two oldest kids.
“It puts all of the responsibility on us, which is not what we intended or asked for,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable teaching them at their level. I don’t have the knowledge to be able to do that.”
The mom said the change to homeschooling has been particularly difficult on her ninth grade son, who she said has spiraled into depression and resentment over his exclusion from school, where he has a close groups of friends. She said the new mandate has turned her son against her and her husband.
“He is really struggling: we’ve been through depression and suicidal thoughts,” the mom said. “He wants to be in school with his friends.”
She said the third grader is also struggling with learning at home and regularly asks when he will be able to go back to school. The frustrations has caused the mom to face her own depression and anxiety; she said there are days she can barely get out of bed. But the mom said the family’s religious beliefs prevent them from vaccinating their kids.
“We believe God had the power to make the body; He’s got the power to heal body,” she said. “(The new mandate) persecutes an entire group of people because they hold religious exemptions.”
‘I never had peace about it’
When Jordan’s oldest daughter, Sydni, was an infant she did receive her initial vaccines. Jordan said that Sydni developed a serious infection in a hip joint within days of receiving a vaccination shot. Doctors insisted that Syndi must have suffered a puncture wound of some sort to cause the infection; Jordan insisted the only puncture her daughter had received recently was from the vaccination. She went in for an emergency surgery the night before her first birthday.
“She spent her first birthday in the hospital,” Jordan said. Sydni is still struggling with arthritis.
Jordan’s 10-year-old son, Brenden, also received his initial vaccines, and he has struggled with health problems of his own, including a spinal condition the family visited Boston this week to get checked on by doctors at a children’s hospital. The youngest of the kids, 5-year-old Skylar, was the only one who didn’t receive her vaccines. She is the healthiest of the three kids, Jordan said, adding that she thinks the vaccines are at the root of the health difficulties facing her oldest kids.
“I never had peace about it,” Jordan said of the vaccinations.
Sydni and Brenden are both big basketball players and dream of following in the father’s footsteps to play college basketball; he now works as a teacher in Albany schools. They play on club basketball teams but are concerned an inability to play high school basketball will foreclose potential scholarship opportunities in the future.
“I really want to get a scholarship to go to college, that’s my biggest goal ever,” Sydni said.
Sydni, though, said she understood the decision her parents have made about vaccines.
For the families who feel they have no choice left but to teach their children from home – or move to a new state or continue to hold out hope that a court will restore their place in public schools – they see themselves as a discriminated minority. Jordan, who is black, compared the situation to racial segregation and said it may be worse because they are prevented from forming their own schools. The families see the state as withholding their child’s right to a free and public education, because of their religious beliefs.
“It feels like we have kind of gone back in time,” Moynihan said.