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Local school districts fall in line with state’s immunization law

Eric Snedeker, director of special services for Chico Unified School District.

Eric Snedeker, director of special services for Chico Unified School District.

Photo by Evan Tuchinsky

ABCs of vaccines:
For the new state requirements on immunizations, visit www.shotsforschool.org/laws (click “SB277 FAQs”).

This academic year, local parents—particularly those of kindergarteners and seventh-graders—have come face-to-face with the state’s stance on vaccinations.

Senate Bill 277 took effect Jan. 1, with full impact July 1, establishing a set of immunizations as a prerequisite for attending school unless a student receives a specified medical waiver issued by a physician. The new law eliminates the “personal belief exemption” that allowed families to enroll unvaccinated children in schools if the parents had religious, ethical or other objections to vaccines.

The law is being challenged—a group of parents in San Diego is suing to overturn SB 277—but the immunization requirement remained in force as children across Butte County returned to school this week.

“We don’t have flexibility like there used to be,” said Eric Snedeker, director of special services for Chico Unified School District. “It’s strict, there are guidelines, and the federal government and the state monitor what we do.

“We comply with the law.”

That means schools cannot allow a student into a classroom until receiving verification that the child is up-to-date on all required vaccinations.

Mary Ficcardi, director of special services for Paradise Unified School District, said proof of a doctor’s appointment will work on an interim basis, but should parents not follow through on the vaccination schedule, the children would be unable to return to school.

It may sound harsh, she said, but if there’s a local outbreak, parents of kids who don’t have all their immunizations will “receive a call or letter saying, ‘Your child can’t come to school.’”

Ficcardi, like Snedeker, serves as her district’s administrator for health services. “So there is a bigger picture here.”

Ficcardi cited whooping cough as an example: The state mandated the vaccine known as Tdap—a combined preventative for tetanus (aka “lockjaw”), diptheria and pertussis (whooping cough)—for schoolchildren after a spike in whooping cough cases that resulted in some fatalities.

Neither CUSD nor Paradise Unified School District—the county’s two large K-12 districts—received much parental pushback before the first day of school. Snedeker and Ficcardi fielded a handful of calls combined. For several parents who still object to vaccines, Ficcardi said she helped them explore other options, such as independent study.

“We’re trying to provide them as many opportunities to come to school,” Ficcardi added. “There are a few parents that get upset and don’t like that the [federal] government or the state is dictating to them. I’m hoping they understand it’s not the school districts making up this requirement, that it really is the state law, and by it being a state law we need to be able to enforce it.”

Snedeker also made the distinction between following the law and taking an issue position: “I’m here to work with parents, not challenge them.”

This semester may be the first fall term to which the provisions of SB 277 fully apply, but districts began implementing the law during the last school year. Paradise updated its board policy on vaccinations to match the new requirements. In both Chico and Paradise, school-site health officials coordinated with district officials on parental outreach about the changes.

Kindergarten and seventh grade represent the two “checkpoints” for immunizations. In other words, students entering those two grades must provide vaccination records or medical exemptions. (This requirement also extends to youngsters entering child care and students at any grade level transferring from another state.)

In the case of kindergarten, Snedeker explained, “those are new parents in the system so they may not truly understand it yet.” The district and campuses have been particularly active in contacting those incoming families. In the case of seventh-graders, he continued, “those parents have had enough communication during the school year, but we have to stay on top of it.”

Both CUSD and PUSD have sustained these efforts for at least six months.

“If we have typical parents that are waiting until the last minute, they might find it hard to get into the doctor or the health clinic or wherever they need to go to get their shots,” Snedeker said. “So we’ve been trying to get word out there. We want kids to start school on the [first day].”

For those missing immunizations, he added, CUSD will have a “case by case relationship with parents” to get the children vaccinated for school.

“It’s not going to be a large number of students; it’s going to be a very narrow number because we’re trying to be proactive and parents want their kids in school,” he added. “It affects their daycare, it affects their jobs, it affects their lives, and parents value education.

“I think the team approach, with the relationships with the parents and the school sites, is going to be the solution to assisting in making sure all kids have the opportunity to come to school.”

Indeed, Ficcardi said, excluding a child from classroom participation is a last resort. PUSD health personnel check the state vaccination registry routinely to ensure each student’s record is updated even if parents haven’t supplied all the information. They also will continue to follow up with families on records requests and appointments.

“We’re really trying to bombard it from all different ways,” she said. “We want kids in school. We want to do everything we possibly can to have kids in a safe, healthy environment because we know that’s where they need to be. We know we want them to be successful students and healthy students.”