Today is the day: Seattle Public School students without complete vaccination records won’t be allowed in class.
Children who show up anyway will be sent to a room supervised by school staff until a parent or guardian is notified and picks them up, district officials said. That will be the case each day until they bring in the proper paperwork. The move follows a new state law that restricted the exemptions families can claim for the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR) to religious and medical reasons.
Washington’s school districts set different exclusion dates. Some, like Bellevue, don’t plan to exclude students at all — and there are no consequences from the state for that.
By 4 p.m. Tuesday, 799 Seattle students’ names were still on the district’s list of kids missing immunization records. The pool is shrinking as families scurry to submit records and school staff work to cross off names: Just a few weeks ago, the list included more than 2,200 students. Officials say that students with proof of an immunization appointment coming up will be allowed at school.
What happens today may resemble the scene this week at Highline Public Schools. Monday was the first day this district south of Seattle began excluding students without required records, and about 108 of the district’s 19,000 students didn’t have their paperwork in order, said Kim Dunn-Hawthorne, director of health and social services at Highline.
Roughly a quarter of those students went to school on Monday and waited in the nurse’s office or main office until family came to get them.
The rest simply stayed home.
“It is a matter of access, for whatever reason,” Dunn-Hawthorne said. “Whether it be that the parents work and they’re not able to get in [to get their child vaccinated], or it’s not a high priority. We don’t have that many who come back with pushback and say, ‘I’m just not going to do it.’”
Washington public school students are required to receive shots and boosters for several conditions including the combined tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine (Tdap), chickenpox, hepatitis B, polio and MMR — or prove their immunity.
Families can also submit paperwork claiming certain exemptions to these vaccines. But last year, after a large measles outbreak that sickened 71 people in southwest Washington’s Clark County, state lawmakers passed a law tightening exemptions to the MMR vaccination. Now, families can no longer declare personal or philosophical exemptions to this vaccine, but they can still claim exemption on medical or religious grounds.
Measles, an extremely contagious disease thought eradicated in the United States in 2000, has come roaring back in recent years as immunization rates began to fall. The illness left a mark in 2019 as large outbreaks erupted across the U.S. The outbreaks sickened mostly unvaccinated children and teenagers.
Why does vaccinating most students matter? Vaccinating more people in a given population helps protect those who can’t get the shots for medical reasons, such as babies younger than a year or people with health issues. To reach what is called “herd immunity,” public health officials strive for a vaccination rate of 95%.
Because measles is so contagious, it poses a real threat to students and teachers who are contained in tight spaces for most of the day, said Dr. John Dunn, medical director for preventive care at Kaiser Permanente Washington.
“It is difficult for me to think of another situation where you have so many people in a small place as in a classroom,” he said.
In the days leading up to Seattle’s Jan. 8 deadline, school nurses and other staff bombarded families with one plea: Show us your child’s records or proof of exemption.
“The parents were crushed with texts, phone messages, emails and our U.S. mail letter,” said Samara Hoag, manager for health services at Seattle Public Schools. A pop-up advertisement on Seattle schools’ homepages also alerted parents about the new immunization rules. The district held several free immunization clinics in December and early January. Nearly 200 students received their shots there, Hoag said.
Washington has long required families to submit vaccination records within 30 days of starting school — and according to Hoag, Seattle schools used to be stricter about keeping kids without records out of class. Compliance with the law is spotty: a state audit from December found that 8% of kindergartners lacked complete vaccination or exemption paperwork in the 2017-18 school year.
Washington school districts are charting their own paths toward compliance, and they set different exclusion dates. Districts are usually required to submit vaccination data to the state by Nov. 1, but health officials extended this deadline by a month to give school districts time to adjust to a new data input system.
In Lake Washington School District, three students were excluded from class in October until they filed documentation, said Shannon Parthemer, spokesperson for the district.
Despite the law, Bellevue School District won’t exclude any children, district spokesperson Michael May said. About 3% of the district’s 20,280 students hadn’t completed required paperwork as of December, he said. “Our goal is to work with families and not be punitive,” he said, noting that enrollment is a “moving target” throughout the school year. About 1,440 Bellevue students claimed exemptions this school year, a slight uptick of 10 students over last year’s figures, he said.
Bellevue’s decision may put it at odds with state law. But school districts largely police themselves: Although the Washington State Department of Health (DOH) collects compliance data, it doesn’t have enforcement power.
“There is enforcement and it lies at the district level,” said Danielle Koenig, health promotions supervisor with the DOH. “They are responsible for their own exclusion.”
During an outbreak, health officials will step in. When measles cases were confirmed at Evergreen Public Schools in Clark County last year, health officials directed the school district to exclude staff and students at affected sites if they couldn’t prove immunity to measles or lacked vaccination records, said district spokesperson Gail Spolar. About 16% of the district’s 25,000 students still don’t have complete records, she said; those without records won’t be allowed to attend school starting next school year.
Rep. Paul Harris, R-Vancouver, who sponsored the legislation that did away with personal and philosophical exemptions, said he’s heard complaints about the data input systems that school districts use to track vaccinations — but otherwise “there has been no noise at all.” He isn’t planning on sponsoring any vaccination-related bills this session.