Vaccination rates on Martha’s Vineyard for school and state-mandated inoculations — including measles, chicken pox and polio — are among the lowest in the state, raising concerns about how the Covid-19 vaccine will be received. 

A 2019 report from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health shows that 7.5 per cent of kindergarten students on the Island received an exemption for at least one or more vaccinations. The rate far surpassed the statewide exemption rate of 1.3 per cent among kindergarten-aged students.

The trend persisted among older students too, with 11.1 per cent of Vineyard seventh graders received immunization exemptions, according to the report. Statewide, one per cent of seventh graders received exemptions. 

The low vaccination rates are part of a years-long trend on the Island, Vineyard schools superintendent Matthew D’Andrea told the Gazette in an interview. 

“It’s a concern,” Mr. D’Andrea said. “I think there’s a lot of misinformation out there.” 

Every winter, public schools collect data on the number of immunization exemptions in preschool, kindergarten and seventh grade classes on the Island. The snapshots are sent to the state immunization department and compiled along with those of other commonwealth regions to track vaccination rates at the county and individual school level. 

Though not recorded in statewide data, the regional high school also keeps records of inoculation exemptions, high school nurse Linda Leonard said. 

In 2020, three per cent of high school students — 21 students out of the 689-pupil student body — filed exemptions for religious or medical reasons, school data showed. The number grows to about 3.9 per cent when including high schoolers who received exemptions for the influenza vaccination, which was mandated for all students by the state early in the year, but later rescinded.

Exemption rates for the current school year at the Island’s five elementary schools have not yet been made available.

Kristine Cammorata, longtime nurse at the West Tisbury School, explained that most immunization exemptions on the Island — and in the state — are religious. But Massachusetts does not allow philosophical objection to immunizations, meaning in some cases, religious exemptions can be something of a catch-all, she said.

“Religious exemptions are kind of a large umbrella. We don’t ask questions, we just refer people to their primary care physicians and we don’t push back,” she said. 

While most students file exemptions for only one or two vaccinations, a handful each year go entirely without immunizations. At the high school, Ms. Leonard said 11 students of the 21 total exemptions received no vaccinations whatsoever.

Students who are unimmunized are required to remain out of school in the event of an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease, Ms. Leonard said.

In 2019, 4.4 per cent of Island kindergarten students and 3.7 per cent of seventh graders were totally unimmunized, compared to 0.6 per cent and 0.3 per cent statewide. On Nantucket, which has a similarly small student population, no seventh graders and one per cent of kindergarteners were unimmunized.

The reasons for the Island’s low vaccination rates are somewhat unclear. Nurses, including Ms. Leonard and Edgartown School nurse Nicole Bartlett, said the Island’s small student population size might skew statewide data, while others suggested online information could be a leading factor. 

“It’s hard to say why,” said Ms. Cammorata. “There is so much information out there, if you’re uncomfortable, you can find information online to back up an opinion on either side.”

Under the school system’s current immunization policy, Island schools cannot mandate the Covid vaccine for younger students, as neither the Pfizer nor the Moderna vaccine have been ap

proved for children under the age of 16, Mr. D’Andrea said. Mandating staff vaccinations would also require bargaining with the teacher’s unions, he said.

But the Island’s vaccination compliance rate could be one of a few factors to affect how the schools proceed with in-person learning in the future, according to Mr. D’Andrea. 

“We’ll have to see how that all unfolds,” he said. “There’s a lot of pieces that would impact [re-entry], one of course being the number of people that do get the vaccination. I think there’s a lot of moving parts that that would impact that decision . . . I think [this] possibly could.” 

Vaccinations will be especially important for high needs students and children with disabilities who struggle to wear masks or complete a symptomatic testing for the school day, he also said.

Ms. Cammorata took a stronger stance. “When people talk about herd immunity, it means you need a certain percentage of the community to be vaccinated. With some of the vaccine preventable diseases, the Vineyard would not be considered immune because we either have lower vaccination rates than the national average or the state,” she said. “It’s definitely concerning.”

The school system has also begun educating faculty on the safety of the vaccine and its side effects, with plans to begin scheduling inoculations at the hospital in the coming weeks. Kindergarten through grade 12 educators are scheduled to be included later in phase two of the state’s vaccine rollout, which began Monday. 

For the moment, the focus is on public health education, school administrators and nurses said, citing efforts to educate staff, students and families on the importance of vaccinations and the details — from availability to side effects — of the current Covid vaccinations. “We are in the pandemic and anything that could help stop it and protect ourselves should be done” said Ms. Leonard. “Anytime that you can prevent a disease, I highly recommend it.”