- With 1,044 cases of measles reported in the United States since Jan. 1, several states have now either passed or are considering legislation reducing the exemptions parents can use to avoid vaccines for their children. New York, Maine, and Washington are moving to restrict religious-based exemptions, Massachusetts has a similar bill on the table, and California is looking at ways to curb medical exemptions, The 74 reports.
- While eliminating the option to refuse vaccinations based on religious beliefs is controversial, 588 cases of measles have been reported since September in New York City alone, with many cases were centered in an Orthodox Jewish community concerned about the types of animals used in the making of the vaccines. In California, the notion the state health department should control medical exemptions rather than doctors themselves has been fueled by reports of some doctors abusing the option.
- All 50 states have some form of vaccination requirements for students attending public schools, though the laws may become more restrictive. The Supreme Court has previously ruled on at least two occasions that states have the right to make compliance mandatory and schools have the right to exclude unvaccinated children.
While vaccinations have been required for public school attendance for many years, the issue has regained prominence in the wake of recent measles outbreak in several states. This outbreak, the worst in at least 10 years, has come at a time when anti-vaccination protests are stronger than ever, creating a tense situation for state and school leaders.
While many people paint parents opposing vaccinations as unreasonable and ill-informed, they do have legitimate concerns and ignoring these concerns only fuels conspiracy theories. According to data from the Health Resources and Services Administration, the National Vaccine Injury Compensation Program has compensated 120 people from 2006 to 2017 for significant injuries from the MMR (measle, mumps and rubella) vaccine, the most common used to prevent measles, while another 20 were compensated for injuries caused by the MMR-Varicella combination. And these incidents are unrelated to concerns of ties to autism, which have been largely disproven.
But personal concerns for a child’s welfare must be weighed against societal concerns when unvaccinated children are placed in close quarters with other students in public classroom settings. This is the reason states have laws regarding vaccination administration and why some states are tightening those laws. Schools have the legal right to refuse admittance to students who have not been vaccinated and in times of outbreak, and this right is more likely to be enforced. Schools also need to consider the vaccination status of teachers as they consider the impact of allowing unvaccinated persons in the classroom.
School leaders can help by educating families about the need for vaccinations and their overall safety record. They can also help by making vaccinations as easy as possible to by offering either information about where and when free vaccines can be obtained. Kindergarten registration is one opportunity for providing such information and education.
Schools and districts may also be able to work with health departments and other community organizations to remind parents about vaccination requirements as the school year approaches. Media and social media campaigns can be helpful in this effort and may be free since these are public service announcements.
As both the debate and the outbreak continue, school leaders need to carefully consider the policies they have in place for unvaccinated students and the provisions they need to put in place for them.
While turning students away from the door is one option, these students still may be educated at home or, in some cases, in private school settings. At a time when public schools are already losing funding because of these options, some may want to explore setting up virtual options where students can study at home under the umbrella of the district.