The empty pairs of shoes outside Ridgefield Park Junior-Senior High School provided arresting imagery.
Work boots, sandals, soccer cleats and a toddler’s aqua shoes — each pair representing a child who would be absent from school if a COVID-19 vaccination mandate were put in place.
Jennifer Schmitt, standing amid the rows of shoes on Wednesday night, said she’s all for protecting others — she herself is vaccinated — but won’t vaccinate her child.
“If we’re weighing the risks and benefits on their own, why would I vaccinate her? Either she gets the sniffles from COVID-19, or I could give her the shot. But she’s got a rare genetic disorder. How can you tell me you know enough about that to give her the shot that just came out a year ago?”
Schmidt and the dozens of others who left 96 pairs of shoes outside the high school Wednesday night are the latest participants in a statewide preemptive campaign to oppose any potential vaccine mandate for kids, known as “Operation Shoe Drop,” which has included 13 such silent protests around the state with more planned.
To be clear: there is no mandate that children be vaccinated against COVID-19 in order to attend school in New Jersey. California is the one state to have announced it will require it but only after the Food and Drug Administration fully approves the shots for children. Murphy has repeatedly said he has no intention of ordering a school vaccination mandate.
But the virus is now surging once again in New Jersey and elsewhere, with last week’s seven-day average caseload for the state hitting its highest level since April, and the omicron variant creating new uncertainties. And Murphy has not ruled out a mandate.
In its guidance on addressing the coronavirus in schools, the federal Centers for Disease Control states that, “Vaccination is the leading public health prevention strategy to end the COVID-19 pandemic,” and that “promoting vaccination can help schools safely return to in-person learning as well as extracurricular activities and sports.”
Currently, anyone over the age of 5 is eligible for a vaccine and anyone over the age of 16 is now eligible for a booster. The CDC has said COVID-19 in children can result in hospitalizations, deaths, and long-term complications.
However, the CDC stops short of recommending that vaccinations be mandatory, and it prescribes a combination of measures to curb transmission of the virus, “including indoor masking by all students — age 2 and older — staff, teachers, and visitors to K-12 schools, regardless of vaccination status.” In August, Murphy did order that school and other public employees must be vaccinated or submit to regular testing.
Schmitt said she pulled together Wednesday’s drop mainly through a local chat group. But the broader campaign has been led by a group she said she does not belong to, known as New Jersey for Medical Freedom, or NJ4MF which is part of network of libertarian and conservative-leaning organizations or social media sites focused on health and education-related issues.
The shoe drop protests coincided with another show of defiance involving a coronavirus-related mandate on Dec. 2, when Republican lawmakers defied a Statehouse requirement to present proof of vaccination or submit to rapid testing as a condition of entering the Assembly chamber for a voter session.
The shoe campaign was dismissed on legal and ethical grounds by Prof. T. Patrick Hill of Rutgers’ Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, where he teaches public health law and ethics.
Hill said there was more than a century of legal precedent upholding states’ rights to mandate vaccinations, dating back to the 1905 U.S. Supreme Court case Jacobson v Massachusetts.
Since then, New Jersey has imposed a host of vaccine mandates on school children at various grade levels, starting with Polio, tetanus, measles, rubella and others in 1975, up through Hepatitis B shots required as of 2004 in grades 9-12.
Hill’s harshest criticism of vaccine mandate opponents was for what he characterized as their selfish willingness to let other people’s children — though not their own— be exposed to a perceived risk from the vaccine amid an ongoing effort to achieve the herd immunity that would protect vaccinated and unvaccinated families alike.
“They are benefiting from the degree of immunity that is achieved through this vaccine, but they are unwilling to contribute to the development of that immunity,” Hill said. “That, to me, is freeloading.’’
But Sue Collins, president of the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice, said the focus on vaccination ignores the role of natural immunity resulting from an individuals’ exposure to the virus in protecting the herd.
However, the CDC said evidence suggests that while reinfection within 90 days is uncommon, its unknown how long that immunity will last and “the risk of severe illness and death from COVID-19 far outweighs any benefits of natural immunity.”
One of NJ4HF’s affiliates, NJStandsUP.org, has posted the fliers for all 13 shoe drops since Nov. 21, when the campaign launched with three drops in three counties: Ocean County, at an elementary school in Brick Township; Middlesex, at the Edison Board of Education office; Essex, at the Archdiocese of Newark, which oversees Catholic schools in the state’s northeast corner.
Subsequent drops have occurred outside schools or board offices in Burlington County, in Medford; Monmouth County, in Holmdel, Manalapan and Middletown; Bergen County, in Glen Rock and Wednesday night’s event in Ridgefield Park; and Ocean County, where there were drops in Jackson and Berkeley townships after the one in Brick.
Signs were also posted on the ground at Ridgefield Park.
“Declining a medical action or product is still a Basic Human Right. Keep the Vaccine a Choice,” read one.
Amela Feratovic, 30, a Ridgefield Park mother of two, was at the high school Wednesday night even though she had already pulled her children from their elementary classes after masks became a requirement and her daughter had trouble breathing through hers.
“I was not a fan of the masks,” said Feratovic, who had little faith in their efficacy or that of vaccines.
As for the shoes, organizers say they’re donated to charities, a gesture Ridgefield Park Superintendent of Schools Barry Haimes strongly supported.
“I love the idea that we take up a shoe collection,” Haimes told NJAM before the event. “I would put out a large box for a canned food collection.”
The last shoe drop before Ridgefield Park’s was on Monday morning at the Jackson Township Board of Education office, where Superintendent Nicole Pornelli went out and talked to the organizers. Pornelli later issued a statement reflecting school officials’ delicate position between local constituents and higher authorities.
“What I saw was a peaceful and passionate display from parents advocating for their children,” Pornelli wrote. “We hope our parents will continue to champion their children’s interests, and we will continue to listen and to be as responsive as we can within the mandates and executive orders we are required to follow.”
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Steve Strunsky may be reached at [email protected]