UCF tables vaccine exemption vote

Parents of students in the Unionville-Chadds Ford School District will have to wait another month before learning whether the district will disallow “moral/philosophical” reasons for vaccine exemptions. School board members tabled a vote on the proposed policy change during their Aug. 15 meeting.

If the change goes through, students in the district will no longer be exempted from certain vaccines due to moral or philosophical reasons. While students would still be exempted from various shots on medical or religious grounds, a parent's moral or philosophical reason could have no standing, some parents fear.

Policy 203 reads: “All students shall be immunized against specific diseases in accordance with state law and regulations, unless specifically exempt for religious or, medical, or moral/philosophical reasons.”

The “or moral/philosophical” clause in red would be deleted. However, the policy also says that homeless students or those that can’t provide proof of immunization may attend classes.

Even the authority for the immunization policy may be reworded. The current policy reads: “In order to safeguard the school community from the spread of certain communicable diseases, the Board requires that guidance and orders from state and local officials, established Board policy and administrative guidelines, and Board-approved health and safety plans be followed by students, parents/guardians and district staff.”

But, again, the red lettering indicates words that may be deleted.

The full policy voted on during the meeting should be found here.

School Board Director John Murphy, who chairs the Policy Committee, proposed tabling the vote on Policy 203 because three board members were absent from the meeting and because of confusion.

“We’ve gotten confusing guidance from our solicitor,” Murphy said. “There are some terms in there, ‘moral/philosophical’ that aren’t in the statute that governs the Health Department and gives them the authority. However, it is in the school code, so that was a reason to remove those terms.

“But then the solicitor also responded that if somebody asks for an exemption based on those terms, we still have to follow the same process. It’s kind of confusing as to why we would then remove those words.”

Several residents spoke during the second public comment period of the meeting. One parent from East Marlborough Township said it was “alarming” that the board would consider eliminating the moral and philosophical reasons for exemptions because the school code considers them valid. She added that there has been little discussion on the matter and characterized the item being on the agenda was done “evasively” and that it’s “irresponsible.”

“You’re trying to slyly do it without even having a discussion about it. This is very unfair to residents,” she said.

School Board President Jeff Hellrung said in response that the board is always re-examining district policies and that the review process is ongoing.

“Nothing is ever done in the dark or on the sly,” Hellrung said.

Emily Smith, from Pennsbury Township, said her concern has nothing to do with the efficacy or lack of efficacy of the vaccines. Rather, it’s about parental rights.

“I would ask you to consider seriously that it's the parent's right and responsibility to make medical decisions for their children.”

Smith went on the ask why the change was being considered at all. “What is prompting this? What is gained by changing this? I believe it’s very important that we maintain our rights and responsibility as parents having medical authority over our children and not have that dictated by schools.”

Hellrung said the problem is that the language appears in the school code but not in the governing statute. “So, there’s some question whether it should be in our policy or not.” But he added that it’s virtually meaningless.

“In a way, it’s a question that has no practical meaning because, whether or not those words appear in our language, we’re going to accept requests for variances from vaccinations anyway…so it’s not going to matter whether those words appear or not,” he said.

East Marlborough Township resident Emily Sokol read the Pennsylvania Code for exemptions and said it does say moral and philosophical reasons are valid.

“Children need not be immunized if a parent, guardian…objects in writing to immunization on religious grounds, or on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction, similar to a religious belief,” she read, adding that the state Department of Health added the word “philosophical” to that in 2013.

“So, if you plan to accept the exemptions like you did in the past, why are you removing words?” she asked. “Just leave it as is stated…Why would you leave words out unless you were trying to hide something or get rid of them? Just leave them in.”

Kathleen Carmody, from Pennsbury Township, said she agrees that there’s a problem with the idea that it’s just a matter of semantics.

“[Saying] we’re going to allow this, [or] we’re going to have certain words, that’s just baloney. You need to put the words we can count on, not the wink and a handshake with ‘We got your back,’” she said. “No. Put the right words in there that these people can count on. Because, if I know how things work, you’ll say one thing and do another.”

The board plans further discussion on the policy during its September work session and regular meeting.

About Rich Schwartzman

Rich Schwartzman has been reporting on events in the greater Chadds Ford area since September 2001 when he became the founding editor of The Chadds Ford Post. In April 2009 he became managing editor of ChaddsFordLive. He is also an award-winning photographer.

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