Thousands of Washington K-12 students still haven’t met their vaccination requirements — and because they’re not compliant with a new state law, schools could soon ban them from classes.
The measure, approved by state lawmakers this year, stops families from citing personal or philosophical beliefs to excuse their students from the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
Legislators took action in a year when health officials have reported 86 cases of the measles so far — the highest number the state has seen since 1990, according to the Washington State Department of Health. The law took effect in July, so now, if parents or students want to skip immunizations, they can only do so if they claim religious or medical exemptions.
If they don’t, they won’t be able to attend public or private schools, or licensed day care centers.
A few weeks into the school year, districts are frantically processing updated paperwork for their students and sending out final reminders to families. While a Department of Health spokeswoman said most K-12 students are already vaccinated — only 3.1% had an exemption to MMR shots last year — they won’t have complete data on this year’s immunization rates until November.
Seattle Public Schools (SPS) officials contacted about 7,000 students who didn’t have up-to-date paperwork in August, district spokesman Tim Robinson wrote in an email. By Friday afternoon, the district had received about 1,000 renewed forms, which school officials are still processing. Now, between 2,000 and 4,000 students still might not be vaccinated, but SPS health officials say it’s difficult to tell because many kids, especially ones from different schools, are waiting on their files to transfer over.
Last year, 300 students claimed a personal exemption, which is no longer accepted, Robinson said.
The new law is stretching school districts. While Robinson said Seattle schools haven’t faced much pushback, the process of compiling students’ most recent vaccination information is challenging.
“This is really unprecedented territory in many ways,” Robinson said. “Because of this new state law, we’re really working hard to make sure all our records are updated … The last thing we want is for any students to miss instructional time.”
If students aren’t compliant by mid-October, the school district will send a “pre-exclusion” letter giving families 30 days to get vaccinated, prove they’re going through the vaccination process or claim a religious or medical exemption.
The process for banning non-vaccinated students will most likely begin sometime in December or early January, said SPS health manager Samara Hoag.
Maia LeDoux, a mother with two kids in Seattle Public Schools, said she fully supports the new law.
“If you’re going to make your own choices about your children, you have to understand the ramifications for the rest of the world,” LeDoux said. “There are people who are immune-compromised, and it’s not fair that you could cause them extreme health problems and/or death.”
School administrators in Vancouver, Washington, which faced a significant measles outbreak with 71 cases earlier this year, are also scrambling to file updated paperwork.
In mid-August, Vancouver Public Schools was still missing about 400 forms, said spokeswoman Pat Nuzzo.
For parents who don’t vaccinate their children, the new law sent waves of panic.
Cynthia Cecil, a mother of three from Chatteroy, Spokane County, opts out of immunizations because she says her kids carry genetic mutations (related to the COMT and MTHFR genes) that makes them more susceptible to negative side effects of vaccines.
Because of the appointments, tests and extra expenses required to officially prove a medical risk, Cecil said she usually just applies for personal exemptions. This summer, she realized that wasn’t an option anymore.
“I had a very finite amount of time to jump through all the hoops to get a real medical exemption for my kids just so they can go to school,” Cecil said. “I imagine the state is going to see a lot more legitimate medical exemptions hit the books because in the past, parents have not wanted to fork over the extra time and cash and energy for a question they know the answer to anyway.”
While many people have debated the adverse reactions associated with the COMT and MTHMR gene, Dr. Jeff Duchin, health officer at Public Health — Seattle & King County, told The Seattle Times there isn’t any reliable evidence linking those genetic results to increased risk in vaccinations.
At the end of the day, Cecil said, she’s most concerned with losing the choice to make personal medical decisions without outside pressure.
Several school districts have reported seeing more applications for religious exemptions than normal.
In Issaquah, 373 students had yet to receive their full MMR immunization as of Tuesday morning. Of those students, 78 have claimed a religious exemption — more than tripling the usual number, according to Issaquah School District spokeswoman L. Michelle.
“Historically, this number has always been maybe one student per school, so this is a definite increase since the new law came online,” Michelle said.
In Tacoma, 175 students had claimed MMR religious exemptions this year as of Friday, compared to the 85 last year, said Tacoma Public Schools spokesman Dan Voelpel.
California’s new vaccination law no longer allows for religious exemptions — it only accepts medical ones. In Washington, it’s still fairly easy for families to apply for a religious exemption.
If a parent or guardian doesn’t want their child to be vaccinated, they must submit a certificate of exemption to their school or day care, which must be signed by them and a licensed health practitioner.
State law doesn’t require schools to attempt to verify religious beliefs — the certificate is the only necessary form.
Because of this, David Madsen, whose granddaughters attend Sacred Heart School in Bellevue, said he thinks these exemptions should be eliminated.
“When religious beliefs fly in the face of the common good, I am of the opinion that the religious beliefs must give way,” Madsen wrote in an email. “Those with vehement objections to that argument have the option of private schools.”