Vaccines, Waldorf schools, and the problem with liberal Luddites
On an unseasonably chilly morning in May, three dozen or so plaintiff-parents, most of them from the Green Meadow Waldorf School, showed up at the Rockland County Courthouse, looking, in their draped layers and comfortable shoes, like any PTA from Park Slope or Berkeley. They were virtually vibrating with expectation and stress. For four long months, on behalf of their kids, they had been on the phone, sending off bullet-point emails, arranging meetings, coordinating calendars, and taking time off work, in an endless battle that had so far cost them hours of lost income and created child-care hassles — and made them into national pariahs besides. Today’s proceedings, they hoped, would result in a decision that might enable them to move on with their lives.
When legal arguments began, small smiles appeared on the parents’ faces. The opposition’s lawyer came off as clumsy, like an oversize actor fumbling his lines. Their lawyer, on the other hand, exuded a smooth confidence bordering on arrogance, an attitude that seemed to swell as he approached the lectern. Michael Sussman, 65 years old and educated at Harvard Law, is the most prominent civil-rights crusader in the Hudson Valley, having made his mark at 30, while working for the NAACP, when he helped to desegregate the Yonkers public schools. Now Sussman, who happened to have sent his own seven children and stepchildren to Waldorf schools, was defending his clients against the intrusion of local politicians into their personal decisions and private lives.
As he stood before the judge, Sussman’s voice rose in a slow crescendo. Recent actions by Rockland County against his clients were “infuriating,” he said; they pandered to biased constituencies and were rooted in “fundamental hysteria.” And then he roared. “Executive authority has its limits!” The parents were as still as forest animals, riveted. Their lawyer was articulating what they fervently believed: that even amid the biggest outbreak of measles in the United States since 1994 — with 200 cases in Rockland County, their own backyard — it was their right as citizens not to vaccinate their kids. This conviction had become for them a matter of conscience and principle. Most had kept their kids out of school for almost half the year rather than take them to the pediatrician for a shot.
If you live among or near certain quarters of the progressive left, among the art and fashion and tech elites who shop at farmers’ markets and worry about toxins in the air and water and believe that hiring a doula may gentle today’s medical-industrial approach to giving birth, then you have probably heard of Waldorf schools. Perhaps you have friends whose children go to one, or perhaps you’ve yearned for such a community for your own, knowing that Waldorf signals a countercultural wholesomeness, a respite from the onslaught of modern forces you’re pretty sure aren’t good for kids: the wide-open access to violence, snark, and pornography available with every Wi-Fi connection; the birthday-party goody bags stuffed with plastic crap; the stress and anxiety you see on very young children already worried about how they’ll do on the test. If you are the kind of person who sees self-interested, app-driven American capitalism as a threat to the preciousness of childhood and to a durable, intimate family life, then you are, at least conceptually, in Waldorf’s prospective audience. Waldorf parents, many of whom are themselves deluged by busyness and stress, agree that they will expose their children to no technology — none, including television, movies, and recorded music, even on long car rides — until middle school. The parents who work at Apple, Google, and Hewlett-Packard and send their kids to the Waldorf School of the Peninsula, in Menlo Park, California, endorse these limits with psychic relief — they know too well what their kids need protection from.
Waldorf pioneered this off-piste approach to raising kids, but it does not have a monopoly on the many ways liberal parents try to circumvent the institutionalized options that dominate the public-school system: “free” schools; home-school collectives; schools boasting “child-centered learning”; mountain, backcountry, or farming schools. There are about 300 Waldorf and Waldorf-inspired institutions in the U.S. (and more than 3,000 worldwide). Each offers an arts-based curriculum in which children are encouraged to play outdoors, use their imaginations, and think for themselves. In Waldorf schools, children become proficient at knitting and sewing, gardening and painting. Waldorf kids know how to juggle at young ages and to bind books by hand as teenagers. No one wastes a precious minute prepping for or taking a standardized test, because everyone on a Waldorf campus agrees that children are far more than brains to be filled, unreflectively, with meaningless facts and that real learning happens when the body — and the soul — are engaged as well.
Overwhelmingly white, affluent, and well educated, Waldorf parents identify as cultural creatives and nonconformists. Satisfied families describe their Waldorf kids as puppyish, freewheeling Pippi Longstocking types who grow up into intellectually curious, competent, self-confident people who thrive, as Sussman boasts his own children have done, at Wesleyan and Swarthmore and Oxford, working as videographers, nature illustrators, and the builders of nonprofits. Eric Utne, founder of The Utne Reader, that alternative digest for the left, sent his four sons to Waldorf schools; when he stopped running his magazine in 2000, he became a Waldorf teacher himself. Utne loves Waldorf for its “unhurried” approach to childhood. The schools represent the progressive counterargument to the vaunted “early reading” programs of public schools, which start drilling kids on vowel sounds in pre-K. According to Waldorf’s pedagogy, kids don’t read until they’re 7 or 8 years old, and because they’re not forced or rushed into it, they embrace literature with natural interest and hunger, Utne told me. He has seen third-graders devouring Plato and the fantasy series Dune.
Across the country, in every state, great numbers of these specially nurtured children remain unvaccinated. Apart from certain religious or ethnic groups particular to certain geographic regions — pockets of the ultra-Orthodox in Brooklyn and Rockland, say, or pockets of the survivalist right — Waldorf kids have some of the lowest vaccination rates in America. In California, Waldorf schools, along with home schools, have some of the lowest vaccination rates — many as low as 20 or 30 percent, and some as low as 7 percent. The Brooklyn Waldorf school has the ninth-lowest vaccination rate in Kings County, and in Manhattan, the Rudolf Steiner Waldorf school is No. 7. At the start of the school year in 2018, Green Meadow had the third-lowest vaccination rate in Rockland County after two yeshivas in Monsey. “All the Waldorf schools are horrible,” says Peter Hotez, co-director of the Texas Children’s Hospital Center for Vaccine Development. “There are several in Texas I would not consider safe for children.” Liberal American parents have evolved from emulating the Jetsons to emulating the Amish in one generation.
All states require kids to prove they’ve received a full schedule of vaccinations before they enter school. But a large majority of them, 47, also offer exemptions to parents who say their religious or spiritual beliefs prohibit vaccination, granting them a kind of “conscientious objector” status. And 16 states offer a broader “philosophical” exemption to those who wish to refuse vaccines on secular but moral grounds. Objectors have typically been members of very conservative or fringe sects who believe, for example, in the healing power of prayer or, as in the case of Christian Science, the ability of the mind to resist disease. The Amish have often opposed vaccination, and certain Muslim groups, especially those originating in Nigeria, Pakistan, and Afghanistan but also the Nation of Islam, have regarded vaccination as a malevolent government conspiracy. Segments of the Dutch Reformed Church see vaccines as impeding a person’s divine destiny.
In recent years, the number of parents seeking religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions has grown, and it is increasing little by little every year. Jews, including ultra-Orthodox groups, have traditionally accepted vaccination, but as this year’s outbreak in and around New York City shows, that is changing. Fears of vaccines causing autism persist, but that is only one thread of the story. A second thread, Hotez believes, is predatory peddlers of disinformation targeting especially vulnerable communities in order to market alternative therapies. But the phenomenon is much more expansive than even that. In the 2017–18 school year, 7,044 kindergartners in Texas had nonmedical exemptions. There were 3,344 in Washington State; 3,427 in Oregon; 4,753 in Michigan; and approximately 2,000 each in New Jersey and New York. But the number of unvaccinated children in the U.S., though small, has risen significantly in the past year. According to the CDC, the percentage of unvaccinated children increased from 0.8 percent in 2016 to 1.1 percent in 2017. These three tiny decimal points represent a huge increase to about 63,555 unvaccinated kids a year. And vaccination refusal is a contagion, like the measles. People who don’t vaccinate their children tend to live among people who also don’t vaccinate their children.
How and when did liberal parents travel so far from Dr. Spock? The measles vaccine was approved in 1963, six years before Americans landed on the Moon, at a moment when technological progress was a joyride Americans took en masse. But in one generation, the kids of those Spock-raised kids have seemingly lost faith in progress and in the wisdom of the conventional wisdom, regarding every figure along that formerly congenial hierarchy — the scientists, the pharmaceutical companies, the government approvers, the politicians, even the wise and gentle pediatricians — as an object of suspicion and a plausible agent of the systemic harm that is being done, unconscionably, to kids. And in place of faith in experts, they have developed an alternative parenting culture built on anxiety about all the ills that might befall children (sickness, damage, death) and a sense that they, and only they, know how to protect the specialness, and purity, of their kids. To preserve that sanctity, parents have to begin to regard the material world — everything from movies to memes to vaccines — as contaminating. In some circles, at least, liberal American parents have evolved from emulating the Jetsons to emulating the Amish in one generation, always with the insistence that they’re doing it for the kids.
In almost every Waldorf kindergarten, the walls are pink. Not just a flat hardware-store pink but a dappled, translucent, rosy pink. Rudolf Steiner, the Austrian intellectual who started the first Waldorf school in Stuttgart in 1919, called the method of application Lasur, German for “glaze.” According to Steiner’s color theory (derived from Goethe, whom he admired), kindergarten walls ought to be comforting but not confining, so a child can feel that the boundary between indoors and outdoors is in some sense permeable. The décor in a Waldorf kindergarten is prescribed as well. It looks domestic but intentional, like Little House on the Prairie went to Stockholm on vacation. There are usually curtains, also pink or red, and a table where items from the natural world are displayed: a vase of flowers, a handful of seashells, leaves, rocks. There may be a kitchen. Housework — including sweeping, gardening, baking, and darning — is a regular part of every day.
Every toy in a Waldorf kindergarten is constructed from natural materials. The tea set, including the cups and saucers, is carved of wood, and the stuffed kitties are knitted wool. Waldorf cloth dolls, famously, wear no facial expression, so children can feel free to impose their own ideas of mood and character on their make-believe games instead of receiving cues from a mass manufacturer. A Waldorf kindergarten is also stocked with ordinary objects — blocks, scarves, bits of yarn — that children can use to build their imaginary worlds. “Anything can be anything” is what Waldorf teachers say.
“My son can knit, he can sew, he can light fires, he can forage,” says Susanne Madden, a small-business owner with a first-grader at Green Meadow. “If the zombie apocalypse were tomorrow, he will be fine, but the kid next door, who’s on his iPad all the time, he won’t. My child is not in the grind, he has no anxiety, he’s not being dragged from place to place. He’ll happily play with two sticks, two stones, and a hedge.”
Madden picked up a pamphlet advertising Green Meadow at a farmers’ market. She went to school in Ireland, and her husband is Irish, and when their child was born, they realized they wanted something more nurturing than a conventional public school. They visited Green Meadow and felt right at home. Although Waldorf schools have tried to adapt to the modern world, they retain an antiquated, mystical, European feel: With its low buildings and wooden bridges set in a grassy dell, Green Meadow looks as if its architects had been hobbits. In the early grades, kids are taught fables, myths, and fairy tales — often from the Brothers Grimm and other children’s stories popular in Steiner’s day — which they are expected to memorize. As soon as they are able, they copy the stories they’ve memorized into blank books in their best cursive writing, eventually using fountain pens, and illustrate them, so by the end of the year each child has made what amounts to an illuminated manuscript. Math is taught through games with little faceless gnome toys — like Smurfs or trolls, if they were made by hand and sold at craft fairs. Every Waldorf child learns to play a special wooden recorder, called a pentatonic flute, and, even in high school, to dance, in broad, careful motions, sometimes waving silk scarves or toy swords, according to a choreography Steiner invented called “eurythmy.” Each fall, most Waldorf communities gather to celebrate Michaelmas with a pageant that enacts the story of St. George slaying the dragon. In Waldorf performances, he merely “tames” it.
Steiner developed his belief system (which Waldorf people call “a spiritual philosophy”), known as “anthroposophy,” after having personal experiences in which he spoke with the dead and had visions in which he saw the plans of the gods. Although Waldorf schools say they’re secular and no teacher ever explicitly instructs children in the tenets of Steiner’s philosophy, this system does form the basis of Waldorf education, as the schools acknowledge: According to an FAQ on the website of the Association of Waldorf Schools in North America, “Waldorf education … has its foundations in anthroposophy.”
Of course, very few Green Meadow parents officially identify as anthroposophists. Indeed, most admit, laughing, that they can’t even pronounce the word, and while some dabble in the study groups offered by expert faculty after school, more of them say they’ve attempted to read Steiner and found him incomprehensible. But through osmosis or proximity almost all have come into contact with anthroposophy’s core belief, which they regard with varying degrees of skepticism: Reincarnation and karma are real, and each child is born to particular parents to fulfill a particular destiny.
When Steiner started his Waldorf school, vaccines for tetanus, diphtheria, and whooping cough were less than a decade away, and the mystic — watching scientific progress and the rise of industrial-era materialism with a wary eye — warned that vaccination could impede proper spiritual development and “make people lose any urge for a spiritual life.” Without the right interventions, Steiner thought, a person receiving a vaccine could sustain damage that would carry into a subsequent life.
The job of the teacher, then, is a sacred one: to guide children through the stages of childhood with wisdom and gentleness so that each child may attain the freedom, competence, and curiosity to fulfill his or her destiny. Steiner followers say children younger than 7 especially need a low-stress environment, marked by gentle, comforting domestic routines, because they are still partially connected to the spirit world. At age 7 (after they lose, in Waldorf parlance, their “milk teeth”), children come “awake,” which is why the third-grade classrooms are painted orange-yellow and why it’s the right time to teach the kids to read. Fourteen to 21 is a time of maturing. For employees of secular schools, Waldorf teachers talk a lot about “spirit” and “soul.” Discussing a child who likes to scramble under desks, a Waldorf teacher might speculate that he or she had had an experience with foxholes in a previous life. When J.R., a Green Meadow parent who is a leader of the plaintiff group and prefers to use initials to avoid a social-media onslaught, sought a teacher’s advice for a particular behavioral problem, the teacher counseled meditation, targeted at the problem, on school nights: “It just seems to work,” she said, and J.R., who was raised a Christian, was delighted at the freshness of this approach. The teachers “do see children as incarnations of a spirit,” she told me. Many Waldorf students have never taken a Tylenol or an antibiotic, a source of pride to their parents, who claim that their children have better eyesight, fewer allergies, and less ADHD than their peers in other schools.
The particular customs of Waldorf culture can look strange to a visitor, but most parents — even skeptics who might recoil at, say, gnomes — are content with the bargain they’ve made, trading a more conventional approach to intellectual achievement for an indulgence in the wondrous fantasy life of children. Overwhelmingly, happy parents express relief to have found a place that reflects their conviction that a pure and simple childhood is best. (Steiner had early ideas about organic gardening, and Weleda, the natural-beauty-products company, was started in collaboration with him.)
In Waldorf schools’ lower grades, neither kids nor teachers wear black clothing because the color black, according to the dress code posted on the website for the Valley Waldorf City school in Los Angeles, should be reserved for older people. It’s “an intellectual color appropriate to high-school students and adults.” Lani Cox, who was a Waldorf teacher in Oregon from 2001 to 2003 and wrote a memoir about her experiences, was told that black signaled “emptiness” and that children, who regard teachers as role models, might look at a black-clad teacher and be reminded of a “black hole.” There are no black crayons in the youngest students’ crayon boxes. Online, Waldorf parents debate what to do about art supplies in the color black. Some suggest removing them altogether, citing Steiner’s belief that young children should draw using only the colors of the rainbow. Others recommend locking them in a cabinet and allowing their use in special cases.
Cox found the conformity of the Waldorf world amusing but alienating. “The students are asked to buy a basket to carry their lunch in,” she remembers now. “No backpacks, no zipper coolers or whatever. So everybody’s got a basket, and everybody’s got to bring in indoor shoes. Every day they come in and they change into their indoor shoes. It was funny for me. I’m from Hawaii. We don’t wear shoes.” During their Waldorf teacher training, a peer of Cox’s was asked to cut off his dreadlocks. He did. “Everyone’s wearing these tie-dye scarves,” Cox says. “Especially in kindergarten, the teachers are expected to be all singsongy and soft and wearing the Sound of Music dress.” Once Cox began teaching, her superiors frequently reprimanded her for being insufficiently “motherly.”
A parent who briefly sent her physically disabled child to a Waldorf school was more turned off. At first she just wondered, Why does everyone talk the same? Why does everyone have the same voice? She laughs a little. “I felt like this loud, brazen, bumping-around person there. And they all talk in a whisper.” But she was disappointed, in the end, that the progressive, inclusive community she imagined didn’t live up to its promise. Day to day, the school so resisted the medical accommodations her child required that she withdrew. In the fairy-tale environment, her child made her teachers uncomfortable. “They want it to be this very sheltered world, but having someone who is different seemed to threaten them.”
The measles landed in Rockland County last year during the Jewish High Holidays in the fall, when a handful of travelers brought the disease back from Israel, which is currently in the midst of its biggest outbreak since 2008. Two people have died in Israel from measles, an elderly person and a baby, the first deaths from the disease in 15 years. Measles is extremely contagious. It is transmitted through coughing or sneezing, but the live virus can stay in the air for up to two hours and infects 90 percent of people who lack immunity — that is, who haven’t already had the measles or received an effective measles vaccine. By October 18, there were 11 confirmed cases in Rockland County. By Halloween, there were 40. Cases remained largely confined to the Orthodox community, but public-health officials, who keep track of pockets of unvaccinated kids, worried about how close Green Meadow was to the yeshivas in Monsey: about three miles, with a busy shopping center in between.
When the outbreak began, about half the kids at Green Meadow were up-to-date on their vaccinations (although according to the county, it was a much smaller portion: 33.2 percent); the remainder had sought religious exemptions. In affidavits the Green Meadow plaintiffs would later file with the court, they explained their opposition to vaccination in spiritual terms. Some held that vaccination ran counter to their Christian principles; others refused vaccination on Buddhist grounds. J.R., who is blonde and has a serene, unlined face, remembers the moment during her son’s infancy when her pediatrician brought up the subject of shots. “Basically, he looked down at the chart and said, ‘Okay, he’s this age, so it’s time for this.’ And I said, ‘Where’s the insert on the medicine? I’d like to see it before we do any intervention.’ And when I saw, as a new mother, that a side effect is possibly death, that was it for me.”
At the core of vaccine refusal is a risk analysis, one that public-health researchers say is flawed. Vaccines are estimated to cause injuries to about one in every 4.5 million who receive them, but death from contracting a case of wild measles is about one in a thousand and risk of hospitalization is much higher. J.R. concedes it was an emotional time — “I was breastfeeding. I was full of hormones” — but she also says that her whole life, she’s trusted her gut. “I just go based on what I believe. We’re all seed of God. We’re all stardust. My instinct is a guiding force.”
According to Maureen Satriano, the school nurse, many of the kids with religious exemptions at Green Meadow had been partially vaccinated: Their parents had consented to early, initial rounds of vaccines and then balked. “The parents start to research, or they talk to other parents, and they say, ‘I’m not doing this anymore.’ ” The objective for almost all these parents is to “reduce the load” of foreign substances in their children’s bodies — either forever or until they have left the most fragile years of early childhood behind. According to this calculus, getting sick — with measles, flu, or chicken pox — is less risky than receiving a vaccine and might even be strengthening long-term. “In the anthroposophical view, childhood illnesses are something you benefit from,” explains Satriano, “allowing certain forces to grow in your body without interference from the vaccine.”
In their affidavits, almost all parents argued that vaccine shots contain toxins and substances that might potentially cause physical harm as well as desecrate the purity of their child’s spirit or soul. The following objection is typical. “We believe in god,” wrote one parent, a communications executive, “and believe our child’s body is a temple of god.”
P.J., a slim, tanned man in a business suit, is another leader of the plaintiff group. He grew up on Long Island, went to Colgate University, and spent his 30s and 40s working in Japan, where he studied Buddhism. When his child was born, he had an almost holy vision of his infant as “a spirit thinly veiled by a body of flesh,” he wrote in his affidavit. “I was unwilling to vaccinate because I do not believe that my child is designed by the universe/God to have poisonous substances, viruses, and other foreign substances injected into him. There is a natural and divine order in which human beings flourish, and this does not include injecting things into a human being. I have felt a sacred duty to protect my son from harm as much as possible.”
“Age 18, I get out of a Waldorf school, and I was a nutjob, I think because I had taken it all very seriously.” Roger Rawlings is seated in a swiveling, squeaking office chair in his home study, deep in the country in central Kentucky. “I really believed in gnomes and fairies and reverse evolution and transcendence and other planets. It’s a long list of the things I believed in. And you start realizing that other people didn’t believe these things.” Rawlings is 73 now, a lanky man in jeans with a wispy gray beard, but during the period he’s talking about he was an earnest, sensitive freshman at Duke. Leaving the Waldorf cocoon, he says, “was like running into a brick wall.” Everyone around him knew things he didn’t, no one knew the things he did, and he had no one to talk to about the way his reality failed to jibe with what he now saw around him. He dropped out of college and started a long process of what he calls self-deprogramming. He eventually transferred to the University of Connecticut, where he met his wife, the award-winning fiction writer Bobbie Ann Mason. It was 20 more years before he felt right in the head. And then, he says, “I put it away.”
But he didn’t, not really. He worked as a writer and editor, publishing a book on the history of aviation, but an obsession with Waldorf lingered. He found himself occasionally browsing the internet looking at Waldorf watchdog and survivor sites. Initially, Rawlings was skeptical of what he found. But one day, he came across a charge he could not shake: “I found that Rudolf Steiner, this man who had always been sort of a revered figure in the world I came out of, that he was a racist. And that he was a German militant nationalist. And I read quotations: ‘If the blond and blue-eyed people of the world died out, mankind will become dimmer.’ Truly. And I wondered, Did he really say these things? I sent off to Germany and got the German texts. You know, let’s read the real stuff.”
Rawlings searches his well-organized shelves for that German volume he bought long ago. Finding it, he flips to the relevant page. Before me, I can see three annotated sketches, one of “the white man,” one of “the yellow man,” and one of “the black man.” Whites live a “thinking” life, Steiner wrote, whereas blacks live an “instinctive/sexually charged” life. Beverly Amico, executive director of the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, says, “This is painful. As an association, we have no relation to that statement.”
Every morning for the past 20 years, Rawlings has come downstairs and applied himself to writing further installments on Waldorf Watch, the world’s biggest, deepest, most encyclopedic annotated-and-footnoted website devoted to the thinking, writing, and teaching of Rudolf Steiner.
Rawlings is a scholar, in other words, with a personal bias — that the Waldorf people are selling a religion in the guise of an education.
Steiner claimed to be clairvoyant, Rawlings explains. And not just clairvoyant but “exact clairvoyant”: practically omniscient. He could see the past and the future, and he could see the plans of the gods written on something he called “the Akashic record,” which Rawlings describes as “a cosmic ether that filled all of space, that recorded everything that ever happened.” The goal of all human development was for everyone to attain clairvoyance like his, so that everyone might get to this view: In the past, “we lived on Atlantis and before that on a continent called Lemuria and before that we all lived on the moon and before that we all lived on the sun and before that we all lived on Saturn,” Rawlings says. “You have to understand exactly what’s meant by these terms, but this is what he taught.”
Rawlings also explicates Steiner’s view of illness: “You need to undergo certain illnesses in order to make progress, burn away bad influences, accentuate your best potential. But also karma is deeply involved in this conception of illness. If you committed certain sins in any of your past lives, you now have a karmic debt, an obligation, and in this life you may have to pay the price for previous errors. Steiner talked about how some people come into this world bearing karma that requires them to become ill or to die in volcanic eruptions or earthquakes.
“He consoled people in his movement once by telling about a child who was walking along a road and a van drove by and toppled over and crushed the child to death. And Steiner said, ‘This child’s soul called out for that to happen. This was the fulfillment of the child’s karma.’ So if a child gets whooping cough, measles, diphtheria, cancer, perhaps you need that to happen. In the logic of anthroposophy, possibly you should not give your child a vaccination.”
Rawlings especially credits his Waldorf education with instilling in him an enduring love of art, music, and nature. He still plays his wooden flute, and every night he goes out onto his back porch with his telescope and shivers with existential delight when he gazes at the stars. But this idea of a better, bygone past, “it’s a mistake,” he says. In the old days, “people were always on the brink of dying. That’s the reality of how life used to be, and it’s still the reality for billions of people on the earth. If you live in a small village in what we used to call a Third World country and your kid gets measles, well, that may be it. What the Waldorf people want to go back to is a corrected version of the past.”
Green Meadow may be an oasis, but it is not an island. The members of its affluent families board airplanes and travel the globe, where incidences of measles have spiked 300 percent in the first three months of 2019 compared with the same period last year. Israel, Thailand, and Brazil (countries Green Meadow families might visit for fun) are seeing new outbreaks of measles owing to lapses in vaccination, and throughout Europe (especially Belgium, France, Germany, and Italy) measles is “endemic,” the World Health Organization says, meaning a regular part of life. An unvaccinated American child, then, who is exposed to measles in Jerusalem’s Old City or on the Paris Métro or at the elephant refuges near Chiang Mai will almost certainly get the measles. Depending on how the disease incubates, the child may carry it home on the plane.
To which vaccine resisters will say, what’s the big deal? To them, media and the political climate have made everyone hysterical. In the old days, this argument goes, everyone got measles, and mostly everyone was fine. “The Brady Bunch even did it. Marcia. Bobby. Check. Check. Check,” says another plaintiff-parent. This is true. Or partially true. Deaths from measles are rare in the U.S., because vaccination rates are still very high, and American children, generally speaking, have good nutrition and sanitation and access to health care. They don’t suffer as much from the conditions and illnesses of global poverty — malnutrition, tuberculosis, HIV — that in combination with the measles can be deadly. In parts of the developing world, the mortality rate from measles is 10 percent.
But there are vulnerable populations here as well, especially among people with suppressed immune systems: a congenital condition, HIV, those undergoing chemotherapy. The most vulnerable of all, of course, are babies less than a year old and too young to be vaccinated. In the current outbreak, the hospitalized kids are frequently the younger siblings of the initially infected. Tamara Freuman, a Green Meadow parent, vaccinates her children because she believes “that we are global citizens,” she says. “The luxury I have to be able to vaccinate my children—I’m doing that for the mom in the Philippines who doesn’t have that luxury.” She couldn’t live with herself, she adds, if her unvaccinated kid gave measles to a neighbor, say, who was receiving treatment for breast cancer.
At Green Meadow, J.R. told me, the parents who refuse or were reluctant to vaccinate weren’t hard-line about it until the edict came down. There were all kinds of feelings about vaccination among her friends — hesitancy, anxiety, ambivalence, inner conflict, conflict within couples about what to do. There were also, of course, vaccine enthusiasts. Her friends at Green Meadow are a health-conscious group: “Some of us eat well, and some of us exercise, and some of us don’t take medicine, and some of us meditate.” Vaccination decisions were like that — personal, ethical, and values-driven choices about family health.
But on December 3, with 88 documented cases in Rockland, the health department issued an order. Green Meadow and all the other schools in the Zip Codes 10952 and 10977 with a lower than 70 percent vaccination rate had to keep their unvaccinated kids at home, effective immediately.
The non-vaccinating parents at Green Meadow were outraged. Every other school affected by the order was a yeshiva. But their own kids were perfectly healthy. There had not been a single case of measles in their school. Why were their children being targeted? “There was an absolute moment of WTF,” J.R. told me. “We’re not in contact with the community this is happening in. Why are you lumping me in? Is it just to get out of a lawsuit from the Hasidic community? We don’t share any patterns of ordinary life! We’re not even close!” A spokesman for Rockland County says that Green Meadow “is within the geographic area where the vast majority of our confirmed cases have been and had MMR immunization rates below the level established by the Department of Health.”
The school was divided about what to do. But, after some difficult conversations among its leadership and with Sussman, it made its decision: Green Meadow may be accommodating of non-vaccinators, but it had to follow the law. On December 5, Green Meadow emailed out a letter asking parents to keep unvaccinated kids at home.
The first day of the exclusion was a Friday. In a community of 300 kids, 120 suddenly went missing from their pretty classrooms. “It outed everybody in a certain way,” says Vicki Larson, who is the director of communications and marketing for Green Meadow and has a child at the school. “After the exclusion order came, your children were either here or they weren’t. So it made a private decision very public. Whatever your beliefs were, my beliefs were, we were friends. We were parents in the class together. And all of a sudden, there was this very visible split. And it magnified and highlighted strong feelings that we all have.” Some parents believed the school should be putting vaccination booths on campus. Others believed the school should bring a lawsuit against the health department on behalf of their civil rights. Feelings were so strong and so close to the surface that when the school decided to issue a bland statement on April 4, saying it stood for “personal choice, personal freedom, and personal responsibility,” divisions deepened.
“Some of the families who don’t vaccinate have felt victimized by this experience,” explains Larson, “and for the school to say ‘personal responsibility’ — i.e., these are the consequences of a choice you’ve made — this has been a flash point also.”
Everyone agrees that the months under the exclusion order were agony. Parents strongly in favor of vaccination felt the horrible tension of standing in fierce opposition to close friends. In Waldorf schools, kids have the same teacher for as many as eight years; the families get to know one another very well. “We meet regularly. We talk about all these issues with regard to our kids, when we’re going to introduce screens, and we have book club together,” says Freuman. “If there are people in our class that oppose vaccination, it doesn’t feel comfortable to be really vocal about it, for the same reason I don’t talk about politics with my in-laws. It will ruin our relationship because we have to be together.”
The exclusion order was extended again and again, month after month, its terms continually under revision. Excluded families with working parents who had paid for a full year’s tuition suddenly had to figure out what to do with their kids all day, while vaccinating families had to explain to their kids why their friends were absent. Parents rearranged their hours, dropping out of professional-training classes or declining extra work and forfeiting needed income.
But worse than that, the excluded children were suffering, showing possible signs of longer-term damage. Active children became passive. Joyous children became whiny. Young children regressed, becoming clingy and forgetting their toilet training. A boy who once loved puppets ceased to show interest in them. Many children, according to their parents, felt the stigma of being outcast. They wondered whether their teachers and friends hated them.
By March, the school says, the vaccination rate at Green Meadow had risen to about 80 percent. Some unvaccinated families left the school. Others decided, under pressure, to vaccinate. “Some families brought in their immunization forms crying,” Satriano says. “But they felt that the damage their children would incur being out of school was greater than the potential damage from the vaccine.” In late February, the exempt holdouts, 21 families altogether, approached Sussman independently. They were exhausted and, also, frustrated. They believed their county commissioner, Ed Day, a Republican former police officer, was breaking the law. New York State allows local officials to ban unvaccinated children from school — but only in the event of an outbreak at that school. Green Meadow had not had a single case. Sussman found this parent group sympathetic; he regarded what he saw as Day’s overreach as a Trump-era threat.
Sussman first brought a case in federal court but was turned away. And then, in late March, Day went further and, on behalf of the vulnerable populations in Rockland, declared a state of emergency. Now the unvaccinated kids were not only barred from their own school. They couldn’t gather in any public places, including restaurants, churches, or bus stops. On April 5, Judge Rolf Thorsen, at least temporarily, found that Day had exceeded his authority.
On April 8, after four months, the excluded Green Meadow kids went back to school. But no one is happy. The tension among parents lingers; the conflict can’t be buried again. The vaccinators worry about a potential outbreak at Green Meadow; there have been almost a thousand cases in the country, nearly 800 of which are in New York State, and the school is far from fully vaccinated. Every time the flu or chicken pox goes around, vaccinating parents are reminded that Green Meadow has no herd immunity. They also worry about the consequences of such an outbreak to the reputation and the future of the school they love. The nurse worries about the arrival of one child in one classroom with a compromised immune system: “It would change the whole game.” The exempt parents worry that the county will find a way to exclude their kids from school again, putting them back in the purgatory of last winter, so they reverberate with anxiety as they wait for a ruling from the hearing in May. And they worry, too, that New York State will pass a bill eliminating religious exemptions, as California did in 2016 after a measles outbreak at Disneyland. Such a bill is in the legislature, and Sussman vows to fight it on the grounds that these conscientious objectors are protected by the New York State Constitution.
J.R. understands that by choosing not to vaccinate, she exposes her child and others’ to a certain risk, and she vows that in the event of a case of measles at Green Meadow, she would keep him home. But she is firm that forcing her to choose between vaccination and the school is not a solution. She worked for a time at a gun-violence-prevention organization and believes the right not to vaccinate is a little like the right to bear arms. “If we’re going to live in a social compact,” she says, “we have to agree that we’re sometimes going to hurt each other.”