GREAT BARRINGTON — At the Berkshire Waldorf School, young children play and learn in an enchanted setting of broad meadows and bleating sheep.
Their classrooms are tiny barns and tent-like yurts. Older children do woodworking, or learn math through storytelling. Tuition is costly, but parents say it’s well worth it. The school, those parents say, is a magical place.
“There just really is no other place I would consider sending him,” said Roxann Slate, herself a former Berkshire Waldorf student, of her 3-year-old, Guy.
The curriculum isn’t the only thing that makes the school unique, though. Over the past three years, almost a quarter of its kindergartners had at least one exemption from routine childhood vaccinations, more than at any other school that reported vaccination records in Massachusetts, according to data from the state Department of Health. Statewide, about 1 percent of kindergartners have at least one vaccine exemption.
It also reported some of the state’s lowest vaccination rates among young children for viruses like measles, polio, and Hepatitis B.
Overall, Massachusetts is one of the best-vaccinated states in the country, but vaccine misinformation and skepticism have become more common nationally, leading to outbreaks of viruses that once were virtually eliminated in the United States. New legislation that would bar children from receiving religious exemptions targets schools like Berkshire Waldorf.
The religious exemption allows parents to forgo immunization vaccination for their children with little or no questioning. It is currently used far more often than medical exemptions, which are necessary for children with some health conditions. In the 2022-23 school year, state officials approved 813 religious exemptions for kindergartners — a level nearly three times higher than 30 years ago. Proponents of the bill eliminating religious exemptions say they are following data that showed such bans in other states boosted vaccination rates.
At Berkshire Waldorf, though, the legislation threatens to expose divisions among parents over vaccination that until now have stayed largely private.
Some parents see a welcome corrective for a school far too tolerant of dubious health choices.
”This alternative approach to taking care of your child that actually doesn’t benefit anyone outside of your family, it’s a very dangerous and ill-conceived mindset,” said Kaitlyn, a mother of a 3-year-old who asked for her last name to be withheld out of concerns of backlash from the school community.
Other parents, though, are concerned families would withdraw their children in favor of home-schooling or move to another state rather than vaccinate their kids, costing the school tuition income and tearing apart an intimate school community.
”It would rock our community not only financially, but also at a really human level,” said Yvonne Perez-Zarraga, of Kinderhook, N.Y., a lawyer and parent of a third- and sixth-grader, both vaccinated.
Perez-Zarraga, who is also chair of the school’s parents association, noted immunizations aren’t widely discussed. Indeed, despite numerous outreach efforts, including Facebook messages sent to dozens of people, no Berkshire Waldorf families came forward to discuss their vaccine hesitancy.
Proponents of the new bill, who note no major religion has a prohibition against vaccination, see religious exemptions as a fig leaf for pseudoscience.
“People pushing to maintain the religious exemption,” said state Representative Andres Vargas, a Democrat from Haverhill who authored the bill, “the vast majority bring up reasons related to not believing in the science and safety of vaccines, not religion.”
Opponents argue the legislation infringes on freedom of religion and the right to make independent choices about medical care.
Berkshire Waldorf officials say the school is not antivaccine.
“We really try to keep those conversations between the family and doctor and don’t intervene there,” said Renée Far, the school’s community lead and enrollment director, who said the school is not taking a position on the legislation.
The school does not dispute that religious exemptions play a role in its low vaccination rate, though it would not say what percent of its exemptions cite religion. About 93 percent of all kindergartners’ exemptions in Berkshire County last year were based in religion, according to state figures.
The school’s vaccine data is skewed because it includes records from children too young to be fully vaccinated, Far said. Berkshire Waldorf recently sent corrected records to the state health department, she said, but the school declined to share those with the Globe.
Vaccination rates were so low at the Berkshire Waldorf School, Rebeca Jurczyk, director of Great Barrington’s health department, worried the school could be vulnerable during 2019 measles outbreaks in New York.
“If there was another outbreak, God forbid, polio or measles, we’d have to have some intervention with all the schools, but definitely that school,” she said.
About 151 kindergartens statewide were not sufficiently vaccinated to provide what epidemiologists call “herd immunity” against measles this year, according to state health department data. Herd immunity is achieved when enough of a population is immunized that an infected person cannot easily spread a virus to others.
Even some vaccine champions question, though, whether curtailing exemptions is the best strategy. Health officials emphasize the importance of vaccinating every child, said Larry Madoff, medical director for the bureau of infectious disease and laboratory sciences at the state health department, but he worried strong measures could backfire.
“You don’t want to push people away,” Madoff said. “You don’t want to be so proscriptive that there’s a rebellion against it.”
Caitlin Marsden McNeill, of Great Barrington, whose 3-year-old daughter attends Berkshire Waldorf’s pre-K program, said she is dismayed by the proposal to end religious exemptions.
“It could pose a really big problem for this state because it could push people into kind of a minority situation in which they felt outcast from regular communities,” said Marsden McNeill, who is fully vaccinating her daughter, though at a slower rate than doctors recommend.
Marsden McNeill emphasized that few families she knew at the school were outright opposed to vaccination. Some question the number of shots children should get at once. Others want to wait until their children are older before vaccinating.
Some parents noted small class sizes and outdoor lessons mitigated risk for children.
For grade school and up, tuition is $24,000 annually.
When Slate and her husband traded a Brooklyn apartment for a pastoral life in 2020, the undercurrent of vaccine hesitancy didn’t discourage her from enrolling her fully vaccinated son, Guy, who she asked not be identified by his full name to protect his privacy.
“The philosophy of the education, and the beauty and sensitivity of the school, is so meaningful to me, it’s just very much not a deal breaker,” Slate said.
The more than 150 Waldorf schools nationally have a reputation for being undervaccinated, and The New York Times reported one school in North Carolina had the worst chickenpox outbreak in 2019 the state had seen in a decade. Another in Calgary, Canada, suffered a whooping cough outbreak in 2016.
A 2015 study of attitudes toward vaccination at Waldorf schools by anthropologist Elisa Sobo found the schools’ iconoclastic culture likely attracted parents reticent about vaccination and also led families to become more skeptical of vaccines, she wrote. Meanwhile, parents who embraced immunization tended to keep that to themselves.
Slate described a “hippie cohort,” at the school whose far-left views intersect with those from the far right of the political spectrum.
“That sort of point where the gun-toting libertarian meets the hippie libertarian,” she said.
Increasingly, she said, she sees vaccine skepticism as an unjustifiable luxury.
“There’s privilege associated with it,” she said. “There are other parents that don’t have good health care and don’t have flexible jobs.”