California vaccination law changes could send some students home

What shots do your kids need for back to school?

Christine Gaiger of the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health explains what vaccines are required and recommended for students, plus some tips on how to calm a scared child.
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Christine Gaiger of the San Luis Obispo County Department of Public Health explains what vaccines are required and recommended for students, plus some tips on how to calm a scared child.

As kids around San Luis Obispo County prepare to go back to school, some may have a shorter first day than their classmates.

The reason? Lack of vaccinations.

California state law requires incoming kindergarteners to have received vaccines for DTaP (diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis), polio, hepatitis B, MMR (measles, mumps and rubella) and varicella (or chickenpox) before they can enter school. The law also sets up a second checkpoint for seventh-graders entering middle school or junior high, which requires them to have received the Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis) and MMR boosters.

In the past, parents could sign a personal-belief exemption form, exempting their children from receiving those vaccines because they opposed vaccinations.

A new state law that took effect Jan. 1 removes that exemption for incoming kindergarteners and seventh-graders (it still allows for medical exemptions with a doctor’s note). This means schools now cannot legally keep kindergartners and seventh-graders at school if they are not vaccinated, meaning some will be turned away until they are up-to-date on their shots.

It’s just a part of that back-to-school process: Pick up schedules, buy books and supplies, and make sure everyone is immunized.

Ron Walton, Lucia Mar Unified School District assistant superintendent of curriculum

The law does not impact those students who have already been “grandfathered in” until they reach seventh grade.

Because of months of preparation by local school districts prior to the start of school, it is unlikely a large number of students will be sent home on the first day, several local district representatives said.

Rick Robinett, assistant superintendent for San Luis Coastal Unified School District — which last school year had the highest rate of students with personal-belief exemptions in the county — said he expected only a small number would have to be turned away when school starts Monday.

“It’s been surprisingly smooth,” he said Friday. “Not a lot of calls, but a lot of compliance. I was honestly surprised at how smooth it has been.”

4.5 percentAmount of San Luis Coastal Unified School District’s 1,265 kindergartners and seventh-graders who had personal-belief exemptions in the 2015-16 school year

Robinett said at the start of the week, there were about 46 students who had yet to submit proof of being fully immunized, but that the amount has likely decreased over the past few days. If those students show up at school Monday without at least starting their vaccinations, Robinett said, they will be sent home and not allowed to return until they show proof of immunization.

In the Lucia Mar Unified School District, which was one of the earliest in the county to begin the school year when classes resumed Thursday, 11 students were turned away on the first day of school — a much lower number than assistant superintendent of curriculum Ron Walton said he was expecting.

“I was thinking it would be closer to 30 or 40,” he said. “The fact that we are this low shows the work that’s been put into this beforehand.”

The parents of the children turned away were told their students could not return to school until they were vaccinated.

The district had 737 enrolled kindergartners and 815 seventh-graders as of Thursday.

Walton said the district “did a great job” of notifying parents of the changes in the spring, when school nurses typically conduct clinics at schools and secretaries notify parents of the immunization requirements.

Because of that, he said he thought many of the families made sure to complete the vaccinations before the first day. He also said he had not had any significant pushback from parents upset by the change in personal-belief exemptions.

“It’s just a part of that back-to-school process,” he said. “Pick up schedules, buy books and supplies, and make sure everyone is immunized.”

Christine Gaiger, communicable diseases program manager for the county Public Health Department, said the department has seen about a 50 percent increase in the number of students being vaccinated leading up to the new school year.

The department hosts clinics most weekdays at its San Luis Obispo, Grover Beach and Paso Robles locations, where they take walk-ins for last-minute vaccinations (the patients must be insured through Medi-Cal; private insurers are not accepted).

On Wednesday, Gaiger said the San Luis Obispo clinic had a number of last-minute walk-ins the day before, following San Luis Coastal’s seventh-grade orientation, where parents were reminded of the change in rules.

“That used to be common a few years ago,” she said. “But we haven’t really seen that as much in recent years.”

Gaiger said San Luis Obispo County has a relatively large population of “anti-vaxers” — those who refuse to vaccinate their children because of the belief immunizations could produce harmful side effects and cause future health issues — partly because of its middle- to upper-class demographic, which has strongly championed the anti-vaccination movement across the country.

Among the county’s largest school districts, San Luis Coastal Unified had the highest rate of students with personal-belief exemptions, according to data published by the California Department of Public Health.

In 2015-16, about 4.5 percent of San Luis Coastal’s 1,265 kindergartners and seventh-graders had personal-belief exemptions. At the kindergarten level, that rate was higher, with about 6.6 percent of the district’s 697 kindergartners having a personal-belief exemption. The seventh-grade rate was 1.9 percent.

Paso Robles Joint Unified School District had the lowest rate of personal-belief exempted students, at 2.2 percent of its 1,096 kindergartners and seventh-graders. The kindergarten rate was 1.3 percent, and the seventh-grade rate was 3.3 percent.

District nurse Ashley Aiello said, as of Thursday, the parents of six registered kindergartners and about 40 incoming seventh-graders had yet to submit proof of their children being fully immunized, though she expected that number to decline before school starts for the North County district Monday.

“They still have two more days, plus people walking in the first day with their paperwork,” she said. “I think we have them pretty well-covered.”

The district has 603 enrolled kindergartners and 505 seventh-graders this school year.

Aiello said any kindergartners or seventh-graders who show up on the first day without proof of vaccination will be sent either to a San Luis Obispo County Public Health Department clinic that day to get their shots, or will be returned to their parents to see a personal pediatrician. Once the students have received their vaccinations, they will be allowed to return to school.

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

When the local school districts head back to classrooms

  • San Miguel began Wednesday, Aug. 17
  • Shandon and Lucia Mar began Thursday, Aug. 18
  • Cayucos Elementary, Paso Robles Joint Unified and San Luis Coastal Unified will begin Monday, Aug. 22
  • Pleasant Valley Joint Union Elementary and Shandon Joint Unified will return Tuesday, Aug. 23
  • Atascadero Unified and Coast Unified will begin Wednesday, Aug. 24