In a district of more than 10,000 students, 43 have been granted medical or religious exemptions and cleared for classes without getting immunization shots.
And then there are Randi Cozad’s two daughters — Kensley and Riylee — who were still out of school when the first quarter of classes wrapped up Friday in Champaign, the result of a dispute between the district and the women who raise the girls.
Their mother, and grandmother Carol Lynch, who helps care for the girls, are unabashed “anti-vaxxers” — the term used for people opposed to getting or giving their children vaccines. This year, they decided that both Cozad children would not get their immunization shots.
The reason the family cited? “We don’t have to explain anything,” Lynch said. “It’s our God-given right as a U.S. citizen to our privacy, that we don’t have to tell you what kind of religion you are. The point is, we’re Christians.”
That’s not enough in the state of Illinois or Unit 4.
Of the two exemptions the state allows, one is for medical reasons, which the district doesn’t have “a lot of leeway,” said Unit 4 nurse Margee Poole. But the rules aren’t as rigid when it comes to religious reasons.
Illinois allows the districts themselves to decide whether a parent’s issue is valid, a call that’s made after completing a state-created form that includes denoting specific religious reasons for opting out of specific immunizations.
“It doesn’t have to be an organized religion, and we don’t judge whether or not (the religion) is valid,” Poole said. “We just make sure everything required is there.”
In the case of Cozad’s daughters, it’s not — at least for the time being.
Just more than a month ago, the girls were regularly attending school — Kensley at Dr. Howard Elementary, Riylee at Franklin Middle School.
Randi Cozad wished Riylee could have attended the middle school closer to their home — Jefferson — but other than that, the school year had proceeded normally.
But when it was discovered the girls didn’t meet the state’s standards for an exemption, the district dropped them.
Lynch said “none of my family does vaccinations,” and both she and her daughter cite a strong belief in the parental right to decide whether the girls get the shots required by Unit 4 and other districts statewide.
It’s not a right guaranteed under state law but rather one that comes from a higher power, the girls’ grandmother said.
“It’s her God-given right that if she doesn’t want to vaccinate her kids, she doesn’t have to,” Lynch said.
The state of Illinois disagrees.
Many people opposed to vaccinations often point to now widely debunked research published 20 years ago in the medical journal “The Lancet.” Because the report was found to contain fraudulent research and drew a false conclusion connecting autism to mumps, rubella and measles vaccinations, “The Lancet” retracted the piece and the author was stripped of his medical license.
Despite the rejection from the scientific world, the myth lingers.
It’s one Cozad and Lynch still believe carries credence.
Lynch offers a number of explanations for why immunizations are dangerous, including these conspiracy theories: companies that make the vaccines work with Planned Parenthood to “harvest abortion fetus cells” and the Centers for Disease Control signed off on immunizations without realizing, or possibly not caring about, the danger they present.
“The CDC approves them, but they approve a lot of things that are dangers,” Lynch said. “Cereal — a lot of different things.”
Thus far, Lynch and her daughter have refused to give in and get the girls the required shots. But with the second quarter of the school year about to begin, they say they might not have any other alternatives. They may very well be “forced to vaccinate,” Lynch acknowledged.
Cozad said her youngest daughter, a brown-haired girl with an easy smile, sits at home and writes her name, numbers and letters. But the older daughter is another matter.
“I don’t know what they teach sixth-graders these days, so I don’t even know where to begin with her,” Cozad said.
Lynch said the older daughter misses her friends, and wonders if she’ll be able to attend the school dance.
Both Cozad and Lynch want the girls in school — Cozad because she’s too busy to play both mom and teacher (“I’m a single mother of four kids. I have to work”); Lynch because no one will homeschool the girls.
“I put an ad on Facebook looking to homeschool,” Lynch said. “Even offered to pay someone a small fee per month.
“I couldn’t get anybody to respond. I don’t know why.”
Permissible exceptions to vaccinating children aren’t unique to Unit 4.
— In Arthur, a district of 1,194 students, Superintendent Kenny Schwengel said 26 claimed a religious exemption and two a medical exemption.
— At St. Joseph Grade School, nurse Katie May reported that all 66 kindergartners were in compliance and only 1 of 88 sixth-graders was unvaccinated.
— Gibson-City-Melvin-Sibley nurse Jen McMullin said her district’s students were “100 percent” in compliance this year.
— Mahomet-Seymour Superintendent Lindsey Hall said a “handful” of families were out of compliance this year. But, she added, that doesn’t mean the district will just let them fall through the cracks.
“We have a handful of kids where we’re working closely with their families,” she said. “For a variety of reasons, we always have a handful where we have to work closely with the families.”
— Hall’s comments echoed those of Bement nurse Michelle Soice, who said her district’s grade school and junior high students were “100 percent in compliance,” but added that getting to that number “took a lot of hard work.”
— With vaccination data not required to be made public until Nov. 15, Urbana had “no preliminary data” available, district spokeswoman JoAnne Geigner said.
According to a CDC report using 2017 national numbers, there’s a growing percentage of children who don’t receive any vaccinations.
The numbers are still low — 0.9 percent of children born in 2011, 1.3 percent born in 2015 — but the reasons for not getting children vaccinated went beyond the common exemptions.
“Some children might be unvaccinated because of choices made by parents, whereas for others, lack of access to health care or health insurance might be factors,” authors of the CDC study stated.
Further, the report found, unvaccinated children whose families were surveyed in 2017 “were disproportionately uninsured: 17.2 percent of unvaccinated children were uninsured, compared with 2.8 percent of all children. Evidence-informed strategies addressing parents’ decisions about vaccinating their children could focus on both programs and individual patients, such as vaccine delivery through school programs, strong recommendations by providers to parents to vaccinate their children, and reinforcement of the importance of community protection through vaccination.”
The CDC concluded in its report that “consistent access to health insurance is another important element of the immunization safety net. Barriers to participation in the (CDC’s Vaccines For Children) program should be identified and eliminated so that all eligible children have the opportunity to access recommended vaccines.”
Lynch hoped that her diagnosis of having Stevens-Johnson Syndrome, a severe skin reaction that can be triggered by some medication or an infection, would sway Unit 4 to grant an exemption for her granddaughters.
Because it is a genetic disorder, she argued, any of her grandchildren could be susceptible to SJS.
Lynch provided The News-Gazette with documentation of the diagnosis from Carle Foundation Hospital, Urbana. Carle officials, however, differed with Lynch on the ramifications.
In a statement to The News-Gazette, Carle stated that SJS isn’t a reasonable explanation for not vaccinating.
“Stevens-Johnson Syndrome is very rare and not typically associated with vaccinations,” the statement read. “In most cases, the benefits of preventing disease with a vaccine far outweigh the risks. They protect not only the person immunized, but those around them.
“Delaying or declining vaccinations can lead to outbreaks of preventable diseases such as measles and whooping cough. While we understand the choice to vaccinate is a personal one, as health care providers our role is to arm patients with education about the potential health risks of not vaccinating.”