7 On Your Side Investigates unvaccinated students quarantined in New York schools

SUFFOLK COUNTY (WABC) -- At least a handful of students in Suffolk County were kept out of class Wednesday for violating new vaccination orders.

The quarantine of sorts is largely in response to a new state law eliminating religious exemptions from immunizations.

Analysis of state enrollment and vaccination records by "7 On Your Side Investigates" indicated more than 26,000 students statewide and nearly 2,800 students in Suffolk County held religious exemptions in the 2017-2018 school year.

All of those students are now facing a deadline to begin required immunizations within 14 days of the start of the fall semester or be excluded from school.

The new law was passed in June following a nationwide measles outbreak, largely impacting New York, in an effort to increase vaccination and immunity rates.

"It doesn't take a lot of people not vaccinating their children and then the whole community is at risk," said Dr. Roberto Posada, a pediatric expert in infectious diseases at Mount Sinai.

On Wednesday, parents and students kept out of class protested outside of Rocky Point Middle School in Suffolk County.

They are opposed to the new state law repealing religious exemptions and requiring all students to become fully immunized unless they have a medical reason not to.

"The school has called and informed me that I should pick them," said Cathy Orofino, whose three boys previously held religious exemptions from vaccines.

Orofino said her boys rode the bus to school but school officials pulled them from class and held them in a conference room for the remainder of the school day.

"My plan is to send them every day until there is someone standing by the door not allowing them," Orofino said. "It's the state's responsibility to provide an education to our children."

The Rocky Point Union Free School District declined to comment on the situation.

Throughout Suffolk County, other districts handled the same dilemma.

At Jack Abrams School in Huntington Station, administrators kept students, not up to date on vaccines according to school records, in a separate room.

"He is medically due in December, but if I don't give him the shot tomorrow they won't let him in the classroom," said Joe Pupillo, the father of a child, pulled out of class.

Longwood Central Schools wrote the state begging it, to "pull back on implementation" of the law, and a former administrator of Long Island Baptist Academy, a private school whose entire student body previously held vaccination exemptions according to state records, said the school decided to close down partly in response to the law.

The state is threatening to fine schools that don't enforce the mandate up to $2,000 per student, per day.

In Public Service Announcements the New York state Health Commissioner, Dr. Howard Zucker urged parents to comply with the law.

"Vaccines are safe and effective. I'm a father. My kids are vaccinated," Zucker said.

It's unlikely that message will be readily received by parents like Orofino who argue the mandate violates their rights.

"If I have to go to court and explain to a judge why I am standing in front of him I am willing to do that," Orofino said.

In a statement, a spokesperson for the state Health Department declined to say whether holding unvaccinated students in separate rooms would be interpreted as complying with the law writing only that, "Under the new legislation, schools are required to exclude students from school that are not in compliance."

Both the state Departments of Health and Education declined to comment on district requests to delay enforcement of the law. Each department said it was the other's responsibility.

However, a spokesperson for the Education Department said that vaccination requirements are not new and school districts should already have policies and procedures of some kind in place for handling non-compliance.

Meanwhile, a State Supreme Court judge who ruled in August on a request from opponents of the law for a preliminary injunction while the law is challenged in court, not only denied the request but also wrote in her decision, "Protecting public health... is unquestionably a compelling state interest," and added that the court does not, "see a path for the plaintiffs to succeed on the merits," indicating it was unlikely any legal challenges will prevail.

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