Area schools struggling to get students in compliance with new MMR Vaccine exemption rules

Thousands of students across Clark County are out of compliance with the law that went into effect July 28

CLARK COUNTY — If you’ve been shopping recently, it should be obvious that back-to-school season is in full swing. But thousands of children in Clark County, and across Washington state, may not be allowed to go back to school due to a new law passed in the legislature this year.

That law is, of course, the elimination of personal or philosophical exemptions for the Measles, Mumps, and Rubella (MMR) vaccine. 

Area schools struggling to get students in compliance with new MMR Vaccine exemption rules
MMR Vaccine. Stock Photo Courtesy U.S. Air Force photo/Airman 1st Class Matthew Lotz

In the wake of a measles outbreak that sickened at least 73 people in Clark County, Rep. Paul Harris (R-Vancouver) and Sen. Annette Cleveland (D-Vancouver) sponsored legislation to make it more difficult for parents to send their children to school if they aren’t up to date on their MMR vaccine.

Harris has defended his decision, saying at a town hall meeting in June that he believes children who can’t be immunized deserve to be protected and able to go to school. Both his colleagues in the 17th District, Sen. Lynda Wilson and Rep. Vicki Kraft, voted against the legislation.

The new law was signed by Gov. Jay Inslee and went into effect on July 28. Now school districts are scrambling to let parents know about the change.

And that means hundreds of children could potentially be held out at the start of the year, unless their parents can prove they’re current on vaccinations, or obtain a waiver for medical reasons, or a religious exemption.

Area schools struggling to get students in compliance with new MMR Vaccine exemption rules
A screenshot of the updated vaccine exemption form, with the new exclusion for the MMR vaccine highlighted. Image courtesy Washington State Department of Health

“Currently, we have over 700 students out of compliance in the district,” said Denny Waters, deputy superintendent for the Battle Ground School District at a board meeting this week. “Typically, we have between 100 and 200 students out of compliance.”

That number represents over five percent of the district’s 13,000 students. And Battle Ground is far from alone. Vancouver School District sent out over 500 letters to parents last week, letting them know their children are out of compliance with the new law. Evergreen had to contact 652 families with personal exemptions on file. 

Ridgefield School District Assistant Superintendent Chris Griffin didn’t release a specific number, but said they have “a good handful” of students at each school with exemptions that need to be updated. Griffin says they reached out to those families at the end of last school year and have been following up.

Area schools struggling to get students in compliance with new MMR Vaccine exemption rules
A 3-D representation of the Measles virus. Image courtesy U.S. Centers for Disease Control

“At the beginning of the year, our main focus is on life threatening compliance, and then we work on immunization compliance,” said Griffin. “If there are any students out of compliant after 30 days from our notice, then they will be excluded from school until proper documentation is in order.”

Under the new law, parents can still decide not to immunize their child, but a simple personal or philosophical exemption won’t be sufficient.

“The waiver process is a little more complicated than it’s been in the past,” said Waters. “It either has to be a medical waiver, which they have to get signed by a doctor, or it has to be a religious exemption. Which they can sign, but there’s some guidelines associated with that as well.”

With student enrollment already declining at many districts in Clark County, there is some concern that parents could simply choose to pull their children out of school. Waters said a handful have notified them that they intend to homeschool, but “not a lot.”

Waters added that their staff has been proactive in sending out letters and email to parents, urging them to take action and trying to guide them through the process.

“I think parents are struggling getting the information and understanding the new law,” said Waters. “We’re doing our best.”

For more details on the new rules, visit the Washington Department of Health website here.
For a full list of state laws regarding vaccines, click here.

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