In averages of state statistics from the past three years, several Vineyard elementary schools have some of Massachusetts’ highest rates of kindergartners exempt from at least one immunization.
According to data compiled by the Boston Globe, the Chilmark School has the state’s second-highest rate. About 23 percent of kindergartners at the up-Island school received exemptions for at least one vaccine.
Martha’s Vineyard Public Charter School (MVPCS) ranked seventh statewide, at 12.90 percent. The Edgartown School (rank 21) and West Tisbury School (rank 28) showed percentages of 9.20 percent and 7.90 percent respectively.
Tisbury School and Oak Bluffs Elementary School were on the lower end of kindergarten exemption rates, at 3.10 percent and 2.20 percent respectively.
The state average is around 1 percent. In 2022–23, Massachusetts approved 813 religious exemptions for kindergartners across the state, nearly three times the rate of 30 years ago.
Massachusetts requires kindergarten through grade 12 students to have received five doses of DTaP (diphtheria-tetanus-pertussis) vaccine, four of the polio vaccine, two of the MMR (measles, mumps, and rubella) vaccine, three of the hepatitis B vaccine, and two of the varicella (chickenpox) vaccine.
David T. Caron Jr., vice president of diagnostic and therapeutic services at Martha’s Vineyard Hospital, says herd immunity of about 90 percent is needed to prevent the spread of various diseases in a population.
In 2022–23, 90.9 percent of Dukes County kindergartners had received all the required doses of each required vaccine. Exemption statistics by vaccine from 2022–23 were only available for the Edgartown School and Oak Bluffs Elementary School. Having all doses of varicella vaccine was the rarest among Dukes kindergartners, at 92.0 percent. Having all polio and hepatitis B series was the most common, at 94.3 percent.
In the past year, religious exemptions proportionally dominated the Island’s kindergartner exemptions, and put its total exemption share far ahead of other counties. Dukes County leads the state categories in total exemptions and religious exemptions, at 6.3 percent for each. The next highest exemptions county is Franklin, at 4.0 percent total and 3.8 percent religious.
Dukes also led the state in vaccination exemptions in the 2015–16 school year.
For religious exemptions, Massachusetts requires a letter request from a parent, guardian, or individual, stating that a vaccine conflicts with an individual’s sincerely held religious belief.
MVPCS Director Peter Steedman says that these religious exemptions are processed straightforwardly. “The law allows families to have religious exemptions. So when they provide [them], we don’t pry, don’t ask why. It’s something we have to respect.”
For medical exemptions, Massachusetts requires a doctor’s documentation of contraindication — “the reason why an individual cannot medically receive the vaccine.”
While Chilmark School Principal Susan Stevens did not comment on factors behind exemptions, she does say many parents are more comfortable not giving their children all of their vaccines at once.
“Generally, a larger portion of the population prefers to give [immunizations] spaced out over time, and not all at birth,” Principal Stevens said. “To them it’s more about, ‘I’ll give [children] all the vaccines, but not all to them when they’re younger … [It’s] just that they give them three or four when they’re 6 years old, and eventually they have them all.”
Though Dukes County has relatively high 2022–23 exemption rates, its rate of kindergartners failing school immunization requirements was relatively low — 2.8 percent, compared with the state’s 4.1 percent county average. This statistic measures kindergartners without all required doses and without an exemption.
Work is ongoing to address state public school immunizations, says Caron. He notes the work of the M.V. Vaccine Task Force, an effort begun by the hospital. “One of our goals this year is to stimulate conversation with healthcare leaders and our school system to develop standards around exemptions,” says Caron.
Massachusetts is also increasing attention toward school immunization statistics, says Caron: “We are encouraged that the state of Massachusetts has opened a new school immunization survey in September 2023, and will close it by the end of January 2024. This will help provide more up-to-date statistics so we can better address gaps in our efforts.”