On Wednesday, for the first time under a new state law, Seattle Public Schools students were barred from attending classes if they lacked complete vaccination records.
As of 10 a.m. Wednesday, 565 students in the district didn’t have paperwork on file with their schools showing their vaccinations, immunity to certain illnesses or exemption from vaccines. By late afternoon, only 476 students were without paperwork. “We only had to exclude less than 1% of our students today,” district superintendent Denise Juneau said at a school board meeting Wednesday night.
That number is down from 799 at 4 p.m. Tuesday. Just a few weeks ago, more than 2,200 students lacked records.
Students who showed up Wednesday without proper paperwork were put in a room supervised by staff until parents were notified and picked them up.
In the days and weeks leading up to this deadline, school nurses and staff bombarded parents with pop-up ads on school websites, emails, text messages, phone calls — even an old-fashioned letter in the mail.
Some staff took to the streets: Denny International Middle School staff visited the homes of families without records over winter break, said Samara Hoag, manager for health services at Seattle Public Schools. Only one Denny student wasn’t cleared for school Wednesday, she said, down from 147 just a few weeks ago.
“That kid didn’t show up to school today,” Hoag said. “The kids that were on the list got the message that they weren’t supposed to be here.”
The district’s biggest schools also have the greatest number of students without records. At least 25 students at Ballard High School hadn’t submitted paperwork by Wednesday, Hoag said. Several students at Ingraham and Nathan Hale high schools also don’t have complete records.
Public-school students in Washington state are required to prove their immunity to several illnesses or receive a list of shots and boosters, which include the combined tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis vaccine (Tdap), as well as vaccines for chickenpox, hepatitis B and polio, and the combined measles, mumps and rubella vaccine (MMR).
Families have been able to claim certain exemptions from this requirement, but after a large measles outbreak in Washington last year, state legislators passed a law that prevents families from declaring a personal or philosophical exemption from the MMR vaccine. Families can claim a medical or religious exemption.
On Wednesday morning at Nathan Hale High School, the usual throng of students streamed out of cars and off Metro buses toward campus — earbuds in, heads down, hands in their pockets to ward off the morning chill. Few of them knew about the school district’s plan to keep kids out of class.
A 15-year-old sophomore at Nathan Hale High School in Lake City said he learned about the new law and deadline while watching the news on Tuesday night. He asked his mom if he had been vaccinated. She said yes.
Sending students without records home is tough, but the right thing to do, he said. “It wouldn’t be right for the school to know that and not send them home.”
Not everyone agreed with the plan. Jose Valera, another 15-year-old sophomore at Nathan Hale, said that while the law is a good measure to protect students, he thinks kids should be in school.
“It makes sense, but I don’t really think they should do that,” he said.
Some parents, such as Abigail Watts, were thrilled to hear that school officials are enforcing the state’s vaccination laws.
“If you want everyone to have had (a) vaccination, then you have to be good on your word and enforce it,” said Watts, who has three children, including two sons who attend Cascadia Elementary School.
Watts and her family moved to Seattle from the United Kingdom in 2016. She collected most of her children’s medical records before the move, but said she spent time tracking down certain documents after arriving in Seattle. “We had the whole summer to get everything in order,” she said. “Had we moved later in the year, it would have been quite hard to have those records.”
Her predicament points to one that’s relatively common for families moving to Seattle from other countries: the standard set of childhood vaccinations may differ in places outside the U.S. Tracking down records may prove difficult, and for those without vaccines that require multiple doses, getting into compliance with state law could take months.
School officials say they won’t exclude students from Seattle World School and Interagency Academy, which both have high numbers of students who recently moved from other countries. Those schools also serve high numbers of homeless students, and by federal law, schools can’t bar homeless children from class.
Most students at Seattle World School and Interagency Academy have begun receiving their vaccinations, but some types of vaccines require several doses, and it can take six to eight months to complete these rounds of shots, Hoag said.
Families can schedule a vaccination appointment with their doctor or at one of King County’s school-based health centers, including several located within Seattle public schools. Many pharmacies accept walk-in appointments.
Going forward, school officials say they intend to take extra steps to notify families of students whose records are missing. This school year, Hoag said, district officials reached out to 7,000 such families just a few weeks before school started.
“The new change is, we will attempt to notify (families) every two weeks,” starting now, she said, “instead of us waiting to do it in one massive mailer.”
Staff reporter Neal Morton contributed reporting.