Vaccination rates low at City of Lakes Waldorf School

Parents opting Waldorf students out of vaccines

The City of Lakes Waldorf School has among the lowest vaccination rates in the state, according to Minnesota Department of Health data. Photo by Nate Gotlieb

An outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease could affect more students at a Whittier private school than almost any other school in the state.

Thirty percent of kindergartners at City of Lakes Waldorf School were unvaccinated against at least one vaccine-preventable disease between 2014 and 2018, according to data from the Minnesota Department of Health.

About 20 percent of the school’s kindergarteners were missing doses of an immunization against at least one vaccine-preventable disease, and only about half were fully vaccinated.

In comparison, just 3 percent of kindergartners statewide were unvaccinated during that time period, 4 percent were missing doses and 93 percent were fully vaccinated. (A breakdown of the data is available at the bottom of this story.)

Cases of vaccine-preventable diseases, while rare in the modern era, still pose a threat. A 2017 outbreak of measles in Minnesota sickened 79 people, mostly unvaccinated children under 10, according to the state Health Department. More recently, an outbreak in New York sickened 214 people.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there were 387 individual cases of measles between Jan. 1 and March 28 this year, the second-highest number reported since measles was declared eliminated in 2000.

City of Lakes Waldorf School administrative director Marti Stewart wrote in an email that the school has already seen its kindergarten- immunization rates increase. The school said 88 percent of kindergartners were fully or partially immunized against measles this year, up from 63 percent in 2017-18, though the Health Department has not yet released the full set of immunization data for the 2018-19 school year.

Stewart said that the school is actively working with its school nurse and several parents who are physicians to “bring focus to the essential role that vaccinations play in preventing illness in our communities.”

In Minnesota, state law prohibits students from enrolling in any school, public or private, unless they have received immunizations or they claim a medical or conscientious exemption. All of the unvaccinated City of Lakes students counted in the data cited above claimed a conscientious, not a medical, exemption.

When presented with the school’s data, Dr. Stacene Maroushek, a pediatric infectious disease specialist at Hennepin Healthcare, said she gets very nervous when she hears about schools with high rates of unvaccinated students.

“Children die from measles, children die from chickenpox,” she said. “As an experienced physician, I cannot predict if this is going to be your child or the child in the city next door.”

Highly contagious

Vaccine-preventable diseases like measles and chickenpox used to infect millions of people and cause numerous deaths each year, but rates of those diseases have dipped dramatically in the modern era.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said there has been a 99-plus percent reduction in measles cases since a vaccine became widespread in 1963. It notes that the recommended two doses of the vaccine are 97 percent effective at preventing measles and that one dose is 93 percent effective at preventing the illness. Three doses of the polio vaccine are 99 percent to 100 percent effective against the disease, while the recommended two doses of the chickenpox vaccine are 94 percent effective at preventing it.

Maroushek said vaccine-preventable diseases can lead to lifelong problems for kids, such as lung and brain damage, even if they don’t cause death. She noted the case of a 30-year-old unvaccinated mom whose unvaccinated child caught and recovered from chickenpox but who subsequently died of the illness.

Maroushek said diseases won’t spread as easily if a larger proportion of the population is vaccinated against them, a herd effect that helps protect people who are immunocompromised. And she said that the American medical system won’t necessarily be able to save kids who are unvaccinated if they fall ill to a vaccine-preventable disease.

‘My kid comes first’

The Southwest Journal spoke with six parents at City of Lakes Waldorf School, five of whom said they had had their children vaccinated.

“I looked at the science, and the data backed it up,” said Chris Connaker, who vaccinated his daughter. “It only made sense.”

David Tompkins said he felt worried when he learned about the school’s relatively low vaccination rates. He said he understands there’s a tension between personal choice and societal well-being but that “on this one, I’m more [for] the welfare of the whole.”

“I believe in vaccines and the medical science behind it, and I wish everyone did as well,” he said. “But I know there’s some tension with personal belief, so it’s a hard nut to crack.”

A parent named Alex, who declined to share her last name, said her son is “partially vaccinated” against the diseases “I actually believe are important.”

Alex said she believes that kids who are not vaccinated or who are partially vaccinated tend to be healthier, adding that she thinks her child gets over colds a lot faster than her friends’ kids who are vaccinated. (No scientific studies back up this claim, Maroushek said.) Alex dismissed the concept of herd immunity as an “urban myth” and described vaccination as a “personal choice.”

“I completely agree with the fact that [there are] some kids for whom it’s not a choice,” she said, noting kids who are immunocompromised as an example.

“[But] as much as I want to be a good citizen, I’m not going to have my child, you know, potentially be subjected to an increased risk for somebody else’s kid,” she said. “My kid comes first in my mind.”

‘Balanced information’

Maroushek said she empathizes with parents in the sense that they want to do right by their kids. But she said she feels like parents aren’t getting the full story on vaccines if they only get their information from anti-vaccine proponents.

“Families need to have balanced information,” she said. “And I feel like sometimes they only get one side of it.”

She said that if parents choose not to vaccinate their children in her practice, she has a long discussion with them and gives them easily understandable information from the American Academy of Pediatrics or the CDC. She said if they still refuse to vaccinate, she has them sign a vaccine-declaration form that goes into their child’s chart.

She stressed that doctors don’t get paid to give vaccines.

The Waldorf model

The data from the City of Lakes Waldorf School appears to mirror data from other Waldorf schools nationwide. At the Minnesota Waldorf School in Roseville, for example, 34 percent of kindergartners were not vaccinated against measles in the four school years between 2014 and 2018, according to Health Department data.

And of two reporting Waldorf schools in Wisconsin, neither had a full vaccination rate above 62 percent in 2017-18, according to Wisconsin Department of Health data.

Three Chicago-area Waldorf schools also have lower-than-average vaccination rates, the Chicago Tribune reported in December after an outbreak of chickenpox at a private Waldorf school in North Carolina. That North Carolina school, called Asheville Waldorf School, had a higher rate of religious exemptions for vaccinations than all but two other schools in the state, the Asheville Citizen Times reported.

The Waldorf education model, based on the principles of turn-of-the-20th-century philosopher Rudolf Steiner, emphasizes arts, observation and the use of rhythm and repetition.

Components of a Waldorf education include an artistic approach to reading, an emphasis on music and foreign language education and a model where teachers stay with the same class for multiple years, according to the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Waldorf schools suggest limiting media and do not include computers or digital technology in early- grade curriculum.

Beverly Amico, executive director of advancement for the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, said in an email that her organization does not take a position on vaccinations. She wrote that each school has the responsibility to enforce health and safety policies in compliance with local, state and federal regulations and “we do not involve ourselves in the medical care of students.”

“Any response to the variation in vaccination rates on our end would be conjecture,” she wrote. She added that based on her personal experiences, Waldorf parents are “quite deliberate in the choices they make, not only in the choice of education for their children, but in all matters affecting their families.”

Stewart said the City of Lakes Waldorf School encourages all parents to consult with their physician regarding immunization and that in the event of an outbreak, unvaccinated students would not be allowed to attend class. She said the school shares commonly held concerns about herd immunity.


City of Lakes Waldorf School kindergarten immunization rates, 2014-18 school years

Total kindergarten enrollment = 186

Vaccination % conscientious objection % missing doses % fully vaccinated
Diphtheria-Tetanus-Whooping Cough 27.4% 23.1% 49.5%
Polio 28.5% 26.3% 45.2%
Measles-Mumps-Rubella 28.5% 22.6% 48.9%
Hepatitis B 30.6% 18.8% 50.5%
Chickenpox 30.6% 23.1% 46.2%


Statewide kindergarten immunization rates, 2014-18 school years

Total kindergarten enrollment = 270,729

Vaccination % conscientious objection % missing doses % fully vaccinated
Diphtheria-Tetanus-Whooping Cough 3.9% 2.7% 93.3%
Polio 2.7% 3.4% 93.8%
Measles-Mumps-Rubella 3.0% 3.9% 93.0%
Hepatitis B 2.5% 2.1% 95.3%
Chickenpox 3.1% 4.2% 92.1%


Minneapolis Public Schools kindergarten immunization rates, 2014-18 school years

Total kindergarten enrollment = 11,467

Vaccination % conscientious objection % missing doses % fully vaccinated
Diphtheria-Tetanus-Whooping Cough 1.8% 8.9% 89.2%
Polio 1.7% 7.6% 90.5%
Measles-Mumps-Rubella 2.2% 8.2% 89.5%
Hepatitis B 2.0% 4.4% 93.5%
Chickenpox 1.9% 8.6% 89.2%

Source: Minnesota Department of Health

Note: Data does not include some schools with kindergarten enrollments of fewer than 10 students.