Vaccines: Don't Lose Your Child's School Spot over the New Vaccination Law

How SB-277 affects enrollment and kindergarten registration for California school children

As of January 1, 2016, California becomes one of just three states (along with Mississippi and West Virginia) with mandatory vaccination requirements. This means that personal or religious belief exemptions will no longer be allowed for children entering school at the following three points: Childcare/Preschool, Kindergarten, and 7th grade. This affects many more families than just those who oppose vaccines, and probably many who don't yet realize they are affected. Parents who have made use of the personal belief exemption as a means to buy time (perhaps because they fully intend to vaccinate their kids, but not on the same schedule as their school district), need to know that this strategy is no longer an option. Complete proof of vaccination must be presented at the time of enrollment, which may be several months prior to the start of the actual school year.

It is almost inconceivable that California, known for being relaxed about so many things, should be uptight about vaccinations. Our golden state is usually the first to embrace alternatives. Indeed, we can take pride in being just a bit greener and more organic than most. How is it then that California, whose governor meditates, practices yoga, and once went by the moniker “Moonbeam,” is suddenly mandating a law which seems onerous to many and forces medical intervention?

Blame it on the measles. This sometimes deadly disease which had been mostly eradicated was spotted making a comeback at Disneyland last year. The unexpected outbreak at the Magic Kingdom prompted public health officials to analyze the numbers, and they concluded that here in California too many people eschew vaccinations.

Many argue that if everybody else is vaccinated, why does it matter if a few are not? This is generally called herd immunity, and it holds true to a certain point. However the CDC (Centers for Disease Control & Prevention) calculates a percentage of the population that must be vaccinated against a given disease before herd immunity is effective, and upon closer examination, it was decided that too many California communities were falling below the recommended rate for measles vaccinations. Without rehashing the heated debates that took place in Sacramento, suffice it to say that SB-277 was signed into law on June 30, 2015.

As parents, we all want to make our own choices when it comes to the health and well being of our children, and those who are opposed to the new law will likely take the matter up in court. In the meantime, here is what's important to know: Children without proof of full vaccination will not be admitted to school next fall, and children starting a new school will not even be allowed to register in the spring.

To make this last point absolutely clear, if your child is starting kindergarten in the fall of 2016, the school you want probably has a kindergarten round-up (if public) or application deadline (if private) by February or March at the latest. Each school district has its own process, but most public schools have some sort of orientation followed by an opening date for registration. Popular neighborhood schools fill up, and families who try to register a few weeks after registration opens are often put on a waiting list and/or offered a kindergarten spot at a school in a different neighborhood. In the past, families who still had a vaccine or two left to complete at registration time in March just took the "personal belief" option to get their paperwork in on time—but no more. The administrators at Santa Monica's popular Franklin Elementary School, for example, have confirmed: they will no longer be able to accept any registration packet from a kinder candidate who has not completed all required vaccines, and the list starts in March. That means it's time to start scheduling any remaining vaccines NOW.

A word to the wise: in researching this issue I did find a lot of conflicting information on various websites. There is a deadline to file a personal exemption by January 1, 2016, but this is confusing. Some interpretations of the deadline see this as a potential extension for one more year. The nurse at my daughter’s school is adamant, however, that no personal belief exemptions will be accepted for children beginning a new period (Childcare/Preschool, Kindergarten, 7th Grade) in the fall of 2016, and this is also what it says on the Shots for School website. To be sure, I called the California Department of Health and spoke with Amber who (no surprise) said that the school nurse is right. The fact of the matter is that SB-277 is simple and absolute.

Parents of children who have not been immunized but have been attending school in a classroom setting with a personal belief exemption, will have to decide whether to begin a course of vaccinations, or enroll in an alternative, home based educational program.

If you are planning to enroll your children for the 2016-17 school year, here are some things you need to know:

1. Per SB-277, it is no longer possible to file a personal belief exemption. All children must have up to date vaccinations for whichever period of school they are entering by the fall of 2016.

2. Children who are already enrolled with a personal belief exemption are covered for whichever period of school they are in, but the exemption expires as they move into the next entry point. If you enrolled your child in elementary school with a personal belief exemption he is covered until 7th grade. If at this point, you still want to opt out of vaccinations, a personal belief exemption will no longer be accepted.

3. To opt out of vaccination with a medical exemption, a physician’s signature will be required stating that the child opting out has a health issue which could be adversely affected by an immunization or else has biological relatives who have been shown to have a negative reaction to vaccinations.

4. Religious beliefs do not qualify for an exemption.

5. Only children who are homeschooled, enrolled in independent study, special education, or have a medical exemption signed by a doctor are not required to be vaccinated.

6. Both public and private schools are required to enforce immunization requirements. Children without proof of immunization will not be admitted unless a physician has signed a medical exemption.

7. Unvaccinated children must be home schooled or enrolled in an independent study program through their public or private school.

8. If an unvaccinated child with a personal belief exemption still on file is found to have or have been exposed to one of the ten diseases for which vaccinations are required, he or she will be kept out of school until a public health official determines that he or she is no longer at risk for developing or transmitting the disease.

9. Vaccinations are required for the following ten diseases: Diphtheria, Hepatitis B, Haemophilus influenzae type b., Measles, Mumps, Pertussis, Poliomyelitis, Rubella, Tetanus, Varicella. A guide to dosage requirements for all three entry points can be found on the Shots for School website.

10. Students entering 7th grade must have received their final Tdap (Tetanus, Diphtheria, Pertussis) and MMR (Measles, Mumps, Rubella) vaccinations, which will cover their immunization requirements through the end of 12th grade.

Parents who decide to begin the process of vaccination, rather than withdraw their unvaccinated children from the classroom, can consult the Conditional Admission Immunization Schedule on the Shots for School website.

More information can be found on the California Department of Public Health website. The text of SB-277 can be found here.