AUGUSTA — A proposal to allow parents of online charter school students to decline vaccinations based on their religious or philosophical beliefs drew broad support Monday from a group that fought a law that eliminated those exemptions in Maine.

But those testifying in support of the measure, sponsored by Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, also urged the Legislature’s Committee on Education and Cultural Affairs to expand the bill to allow those exemptions for students at private or religious schools that don’t accept public financing.

Tipping’s bill is a nod to opponents of the new vaccination law, which eliminated all but medical exemptions for school-age and college-age students. That law, which goes into effect in 2021, was upheld in a lopsided statewide referendum last Tuesday.

Tipping said Monday that it makes little sense to require vaccinations for children who are schooled from home through online classes. But some committee members questioned whether an amendment would be needed to exempt virtual charter students from the vaccination requirement when they participate in academic testing, which is usually done with other students.

Supporters of the bill also urged the committee to relax the cap on total virtual charter school enrollment in Maine, arguing that for families with religious or philosophical objections to vaccinations, an online education is their only alternative.

State law caps charter schools at 10 in Maine and limits the total number of students enrolled in virtual charter schools to 1,000. About 800 students are enrolled in virtual charter schools in Maine, according to enrollment figures from the two existing schools – Maine Virtual Academy and Maine Connections Academy.

“The way I’m seeing this bill, is this could boost enrollment allocations for virtual charter schools,” said committee member Rep. Gary Drinkwater, R-Milford. He noted that the state’s constitution calls for a free public education for all Maine children.

Tipping said increasing the enrollment cap would be a question for the committee to consider. He said he first authored the virtual charter school exemption bill last May, but because the referendum question had yet to be decided, he put his bill on hold.

His bill, L.D. 2046, would also expand the vaccination requirement to all students under age 18 who are enrolled or accepted for enrollment at a private or public post-secondary school.

Another provision would open a state-funded universal vaccination program to college students in Maine who may not have the vaccinations required under the new law. Some committee members questioned the cost of that provision.

Samantha Warren, director of government and community relations for the University of Maine System, said the system recommends the provision, which was excluded from the new vaccine law in 2019. She said the university supports bill provisions that would expand access to the program to provide free vaccinations to students who are financially eligible despite their age.

“After all,” Warren said, “vaccine-preventable diseases like the measles do not discriminate based on age and nor should our state’s universal student immunization program.”

State voters overwhelmingly upheld the new vaccine law last week with 73 percent voting in support. Maine is one of five states to prohibit all non-medical exemptions to school-required vaccines – the others are California, New York, Mississippi and West Virginia.

California and New York passed similar laws after measles outbreaks in recent years caused by slipping vaccination rates. Maine has the highest pertussis rate in the country.

Another provision in Tipping’s bill would fix a technical mistake in the new law and make it clear that employees at health care facilities in Maine also have until September of 2021 to comply with the new vaccine requirements.

David Whitney, of Marshfield, previously  the chairman of the board for Downeast Community Hospital in Machias, testified in support of the bill, saying that clarifying the deadline for health care workers was important. Whitney, who opposed the new vaccination law, said doing so, “would give health care workers ample time to succumb to vaccination requirements or be able to find employment and settle in another friendlier state.”

“This will also give health care facilities additional time to fill positions already vacated as a result of the most punitive, coercive, discriminatory law in Maine’s history,” Whitney said.

There was no opposition testimony to the bill. A work session on the new bill, when the committee will consider amendments or vote on whether to endorse it, had not yet been scheduled.

 

 

 

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