Despite California's Strict Law, Thousands Start School Unvaccinated
By Jill Tucker
While a new state law requires children to be vaccinated to attend public or private school, thousands of California students are filing into classrooms this month without the required immunizations.
In fact, it will be years before the law that Gov. Jerry Brown signed last year, in the aftermath of a measles outbreak that was traced to Disneyland, fully takes effect and forces all kids -- save those with strict medical exemptions -- to have all their shots.
What's changed is that parents can no longer opt out of vaccinations by claiming a religious or personal-belief exemption. However, parents need to provide immunization records at only two points of their child's school career -- at the outset of kindergarten and seventh grade.
As a result, those who had already claimed an exemption are grandfathered in until they move from preschool to kindergarten or from sixth to seventh grade. First-graders won't have to show proof of immunizations for six years, and eighth-graders can graduate from high school without ever having to get the 10 shots preventing diseases like measles and hepatitis.
The slow rollout allows schools to maintain the current practice of confirming a student's immunization paperwork just twice, though pupils new to a district must submit proof of vaccination regardless of grade, state legislative officials said.
In Oakland, where classes opened Monday, 400 of roughly 37,000 students had ongoing personal exemptions, down from 500 last year, district officials said.
Meanwhile, many families in the city who had no opposition to vaccines were nonetheless still working Monday to get their children the shots or provide proof to the district. And school staff was still processing paperwork on the first day of class.
Over the weekend, 2,600 of these students had no proof of vaccination entered in the system, but the actual number who were unvaccinated was probably closer to a couple hundred, said district spokesman John Sasaki. He was unaware of any students who had been sent home because they lacked paperwork, but said those without it would not be allowed in class.
"I don't expect that to be a significant number at all," he said. "If you're a parent whose kids are not vaccinated, you're going to be impacted, and it's going to be something you'll have to deal with. We want kids to be vaccinated and in class as soon as possible."
According to health experts, a high level of immunization -- usually more than 90 percent of the population -- creates "herd immunity," a kind of umbrella protection that prevents infectious diseases from spreading. If too many children at a school aren't vaccinated, diseases like measles and whooping cough can spread and potentially infect children who cannot be immunized, many of whom already have weakened immune systems.
Studies have shown that last year's statewide measles outbreak, which infected well over 100 people, was largely fueled by pockets of under-immunized people throughout California.
Parents who don't immunize their children usually question the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and some raise concerns about a long-debunked link between vaccines and autism. A study that found a possible connection, published in the 1990s, was retracted years ago.
Across the Bay Area and state, families appear to understand the evolving law, administrators said. In Berkeley, a week before the start of school, most students had their forms in, said Superintendent Donald Evans. Those who don't "will be sent away," he added.
Officials in many districts were referring families to local clinics and medical facilities to get the required shots.
While Senate Bill 277 severely limited the ability of parents to opt out of immunizations, state law has long required students to be immunized. At the start of every school year, districts frequently had to send students home who failed to submit the necessary paperwork. Yet some schools were lax in enforcement.
The new law makes clear how serious the state is about vaccines, and parents have largely bought in, said state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, who authored the measure.
"The measles outbreak that took place certainly got people's attention," he said. "We're not hearing reports of parents complaining or protesting. They're just getting their kids vaccinated."
"You can't let families slide," said Sherri Willis, spokeswoman for the Alameda County Public Health Department. She said that in the past, some families who had no problem with vaccines simply failed to get them by the first day of school.
Before SB277, the number of families claiming personal exemptions was small in most districts -- around 2 to 3 percent. Some of those parents opposed the vaccine legislation and, after its passage, have refused to immunize their children.
San Francisco mom Adrienne Moore, who fought the law, spent months trying to get a medical exemption for her kindergartner.
Moore said her daughter became unresponsive for nine days after her first tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis, or Tdap, shot when she was a baby. Before school started last week, she said, her doctor agreed to support a one-year medical exemption.
Moore's second daughter, who would start kindergarten next year, has no exemption. If it's a choice between vaccines and homeschooling, the mom said her girls would stay home.
The law is still subject to a court battle, and a federal judge in San Diego is expected to rule this week on whether to delay it while a legal challenge proceeds. A lawsuit filed by an antivaccination group, Education 4 All, charges that the law violates the right to an education under California's constitution.
San Francisco Chronicle staff writer Erin Allday contributed to this report.
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