City Closes 2 More Williamsburg Yeshivos for Measles Violations, Accused of ‘Witch Hunt’

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measles williamsburg
(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

The New York City Health Department closed two more Williamsburg yeshivos for failing to comply with measles-related orders, but the yeshivos are saying the Department is now engaged in a “witch hunt” and its rules are impossible to comply with.

In December, the Health Department ordered that yeshivos in Williamsburg and Boro Park — where the New York measles outbreak was most heavily concentrated — ban unvaccinated students, and maintain attendance and immunization records to be provided to inspectors upon request.

Ten Williamsburg yeshivos or playgroups have since been closed either for failing to exclude unvaccinated students or not maintaining proper records for inspection, including one closed this week Tuesday. The other nine have been allowed to reopen after taking corrective action.

The measles outbreak, which began in New York City in October, has reached 588 confirmed cases as of Tuesday, including 437 in Williamsburg and 100 in Boro Park. But the disease has spread more slowly recently; there were only five confirmed cases in Williamsburg between last week Monday and this week Tuesday.

Communal leaders tell Hamodia that the schools are doing their best to comply with the vaccination order, but often are unable to fully do so under what they describe as a quickly rolled-out plan that called for significant changes.

“The city made a major shift from one minute to the next,” Rabbi David Niederman, President of the United Jewish Organizations of Williamsburg and North Brooklyn, told Hamodia in an interview last month. “All mosdos have kids that had exemptions for one reason or another, and now schools with hundreds — and some with thousands — of students were told that they could not let any unvaccinated child attend, even with an exemption. On top of that, there was a lot of new paperwork that was demanded on short notice. Everybody is doing their best to comply, but the mosdos are confused about some points, and the Department of Health’s own staff is confused too. We ended up in the center of the storm, and a lot of schools simply were not able to respond as quickly as they were being asked to.”

On Thursday, the Department announced that two more Williamsburg schools were being closed, one “for failing to provide sufficient proof of immunity for a child who was present at the school and for allowing unvaccinated children and staff on site,” and the other – which had previously been closed and allowed to reopen – “for allowing 35 students who were either unvaccinated or did not have the required number of doses of the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine to attend school.”

But a source close to the schools, who spoke to Hamodia on condition of anonymity, as he was not authorized to speak on their behalf, said the closures were the result of an ever-changing and ambiguous set of rules.

The Health Department requires one dose of the MMR vaccine for children attending day care and prekindergarten, and two doses for children in kindergarten through 12th grade. (The requirement is also fulfilled if a student presents results of blood work showing immunity to measles.)

The Chassidishe yeshivos use different names than other schools in their grading systems, but inspectors have always considered these schools’ youngest age group — which has students as little as 4½ years old — to be pre-K. But on Thursday, according to this source, the inspector said these grades are not considered pre-K; therefore, the students who had only received one dose of the vaccine were no longer in compliance.

As to the staffer who did not have immunization records, the source says it was not a regular school staffer, but one who worked in this school system’s central office and had come that day specifically to assist the health inspector with paperwork. The inspector asked this individual for his own record; when the individual replied that he did not have one because he was not a regular school employee, the inspector told him he must leave. Once he was forced to leave, the school no longer had a person on site to assist the inspector, as required.

“The schools closed today have a zero-tolerance policy regarding unvaccinated children,” the source told Hamodia. “Yet we are facing an unending barrage of daily inspections and reinspections, baseless accusations and getting different directions and new directives from various inspectors without recourse.

“The closure of programs, supposedly for having unvaccinated children, are actually clerical issues and often errors or conflicting directives from different Health Department divisions.

“This witch hunt doesn’t help anyone, and only hampers the efforts to end the measles outbreak.”

A Health Department spokesperson told Hamodia that classrooms serving 5- and 6-year-olds are defined as kindergarten.

“Measles is a potentially deadly and highly contagious disease,” the spokesperson said. “To ensure the well-being of some of our most vulnerable New Yorkers, children, we need these orders to be followed. Closing a school is not an action we take lightly, but we are prepared to take them based on the severity of the situation and in protection of children.”

rborchardt@hamodia.com