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Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
More than half of the student body at the Santa Fe Waldorf School have state exemptions allowing them to bypass required immunizations, a situation that has remained constant at the school for years.
But a school spokeswoman said the officials are not hearing any concerns from parents, despite ongoing measles outbreaks across the U.S. that have spurred a renewed national dialogue about unvaccinated children in schools.
“We haven’t had any families come forward with any sense of concern,” said Carole Cressman, Waldorf School’s spokeswoman and campus manager.
She also emphasized that the school is compliant with regulations set by the New Mexico Department of Health, which approves or denies vaccination exemption requests from parents who cite medical or religious grounds for the waivers.
For the 2018-19 school year, 119 of Waldorf’s 226 students – or 52.7% – received immunization exemptions from the state, according to Cressman.
The school doesn’t keep track of how many of the vaccination waivers are medical and how many are religion-based. But the Department of Health’s records for kindergarten and seventh grade students at Waldorf School for the 2017-18 school year show all of the exemptions were for religious reasons.
Having about half of Waldorf’s student population without vaccinations, Cressman said, has remained steady over the past five years.
Department of Health spokesman David Morgan said in a statement that the department considers that kind of density of unvaccinated children at a school a “risk to public health.”
More than 4,000 students statewide had immunization exemptions on file in 2018, according to Waldorf’s Cressman.
As of last week, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported 1,044 confirmed cases of measles in 28 states. That’s the greatest number of cases since 1992. The disease was labeled eliminated in the United States in 2000, according to the CDC.
Last month, the state Department of Health confirmed one case of measles in New Mexico, in a 1-year-old in Sierra County.
Schools in the Waldorf education system have been at the forefront of the national conversation over concerns about unvaccinated schoolchildren, particularly in light of the measles epidemic.
Earlier this year, parents from the Green Meadow Waldorf school in Rockland County, New York, became embroiled in a legal battle when local health officials barred unvaccinated children from public places, including schools. Forty-five students reportedly returned to the Waldorf school in early April after a judge temporarily lifted the order.
When asked if there’s anything about the Waldorf School philosophy that attracts a high density of nonvaccinating families, Cressman said neither the Santa Fe school nor its accrediting body encourages any “alternative approach to medicine.”
“That has nothing to do with the school model,” Cressman said. “It just happens to be the population that comes here. There’s no connection with us not supporting immunization. We provide ample information, and that decision is always made by the families.”
Cressman said that the Santa Fe school’s small size and “alternative pedagogy” attracts what she described as a diverse student population.
A statement published in early June by the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America said it does “not take a position on the medical care of students,” but expects its membership institutions to be compliant with local and national policies.
In an email to the Journal, Morgan elaborated on the state Health Department’s position. He said that in a community where the majority is immune to infectious diseases, an outbreak is unlikely, even among unvaccinated individuals.
“The more unvaccinated people you have in a school or any group, the more likely even one case of a highly contagious vaccine-preventable disease – measles, for example – will spread and can cause a serious outbreak,” he wrote. “When most people in a group are vaccinated, the chances of an outbreak spreading from one case are much lower.”
Cressman said the Waldorf school annually provides families with the state-issued information about immunizations and about communicable diseases as they come up.
“That’s what we can professionally do,” she said.
If there were to be an outbreak, Cressman said, the school has a communication plan for families about what symptoms to look out for and other actions to take. Students who contract the illness would not be allowed to attend school. For unvaccinated students who haven’t contracted the disease, whether or not they attend classes would be up to the parents.
“It really relies on the parent,” she said. “They’re the ones who make those decisions.”
Cressman said it probably would not be an easy decision for parents who have obtained religious or medical vaccination exemptions to change their minds now.
“I don’t think that’s a fleeting thing for them,” Cressman said. “If they chose to go this route and the Department of Health approves it, I don’t know how much leeway there is for that.”
Outbreaks at Waldorf schools have occurred from time to time. Last year, at least 36 children at a Waldorf school in Asheville, North Carolina, contracted chickenpox.
The “Waldorf Answers” website says Waldorf or “Rudolf Steiner” education – after the German-Austrian author, spiritualist and philosopher born in 1861, who founded the first Waldorf schools – “is based on an anthroposophical view and understanding of the human being, that is, as a being of body, soul and spirit. The education mirrors the basic stages of a child’s development from childhood to adulthood, which in general reflects the development of humanity through history from our origin, far back in past times up to the present.”