State law requires school administrators to exclude students from school or child care if they have not shown evidence of state-mandated vaccinations or exemption from the requirement. But it provides no consequences if they don’t.
Seattle Public Schools and several other districts in the Puget Sound region waited until January to begin excluding students who had consistently failed to get their paperwork in order. In Seattle, it’s the first time in two decades the district has even enforced the rule by excluding students, the district’s Health Services Manager Samara Hoag said.
“It’s not that we’ve never worked on this,” Hoag said. “We didn’t want to kick families out.”
Hoag pointed to the complexities involved with managing thousands of records each school year, adding that improvements should help the district accelerate the process this fall.
Although students generally have no more than 30 days from their first day of attendance to show proof of vaccination or exemption, several other school districts, including Highline, Issaquah and Puyallup, began excluding students only this month. The Bellevue School District does not exclude noncompliant students as a matter of policy.
School attendance is important, so it is understandable that school districts may be reluctant to take what some may see as a drastic enforcement measure. But area districts that have excluded students report most cases were resolved within a matter of days. Moreover, what is the purpose of having a rule that is not enforced?
These are not idle standards — they are intended to protect public health and safety. Last spring’s measles outbreak in Clark County, and the smaller outbreaks at Issaquah High School and North Creek High School in Bothell, should be proof enough that state vaccination requirements should be taken seriously. Officials estimate public health departments spent more than $1 million responding to the Clark County outbreak. Eight hundred students were barred from classrooms for weeks to help contain the highly contagious and potentially deadly disease.
The question of exclusion is just one example of a troubling lack of rigor in the enforcement of state vaccination requirements. According to a recent Washington State Auditor report, 10% of districts failed to submit mandatory vaccination data to state health officials during the 2017-18 school year. According to the Department of Health, about 95% of districts report their data in most years.
The bottom line, as the auditor concluded, is that Washington does not truly know its childhood vaccination rate. That is cause for significant concern.
Last spring, lawmakers made the wise decision to eliminate personal and philosophical exemptions to measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) immunization requirements. But that change only matters if school districts are enforcing vaccination requirements and being held accountable when they don’t.