EDMONDS — Hundreds of students will soon be barred from attending public schools in Edmonds and Everett unless they obtain vaccinations for measles and other communicable diseases or produce a valid exemption for state-required immunizations.
The Edmonds School District plans to exclude up to 222 students Friday for being out of compliance. In the Everett School District, as many as 458 elementary and secondary students could be kept off campuses starting Monday.
Both districts have called and sent warning letters to parents of those students. That’s in addition to notices sent more than a month ago. Officials think the actual number of exclusions will drop as parents look to comply, knowing their child will not be allowed back into school until they do.
“We hope we don’t have to exclude any student, but student and staff safety are our main concern so our district will be following the law and moving forward with exclusions on Nov. 4,” said Kari Johnson, nurse supervisor for Everett Public Schools. “Our nurses continue working with families to get their documents in and we fully anticipate our numbers will be even lower on exclusion day.”
Mara Marano-Bianco, Edmonds’ health services program manager, described a similar effort in that district.
“Our school nurses are working directly with our families by providing them with information and helping them find resources so their students can get vaccinated and stay in school,” she said. “It’s very important that we do everything we can to keep all of our students healthy.”
State law requires children get certain vaccines to enter school, preschool and child care. They must be fully immunized against an array of diseases including measles, mumps, chickenpox, whooping cough, diphtheria, polio and tetanus.
School districts provide parents with information on the age or grade level at which their child must be immunized for a particular illness. Districts also provide information on how to obtain a medical, religious or personal exemption for vaccinations.
Earlier this year, in response to a measles outbreak in Clark County in southwest Washington, state lawmakers eliminated the personal exemption for the Measles, Mumps and Rubella (MMR) vaccination. Many students now facing exclusion had this exemption last school year but it’s no longer valid.
In order to comply with state law, a parent must provide proof of the required immunizations or immunity for their child. A student can be granted “conditional” status and be allowed to stay in school if efforts are being made to get them immunized. Students are considered in compliance if they have a valid exemption for any unmet immunization requirement.
A student is considered out of compliance if they are not fully immunized for their age against illnesses, not in “conditional” status and does not have a valid exemption.
Exclusions are not new. For example, at the beginning of the 2018-19 school year, 236 students were excluded in the Edmonds district.
And they can occur in response to public safety concerns.
In May, after a North Creek High School student contracted measles, 10 other students with no record of measles immunization were excluded from campus for roughly two weeks to keep the viral infection from spreading.
Exclusions, like those about to occur in Edmonds and Everett schools, rarely last long. Some could even end the same day they begin, Johnson said.
Sometimes a student can go to a local pharmacy to get a shot and return to class, she said. Making an appointment with a doctor is enough to get them on conditional status and allowed back. Exemptions require a little more conversation especially given the change in state law regarding the MMR vaccine.
“What I’m finding is that for people who have a true belief that they don’t want it for their child, it is a religious issue,” she said. “Now, they can go back and get a religious exemption. Our goal is to have kids in school. We want to respect the beliefs of every family of every student.”
Elsewhere in Snohomish County, the Marysville School District had 260 students out of compliance as of Tuesday .
Parents of 137 elementary students, 37 middle school students and 86 high school students will be receiving a letter warning that they need to bring their child in for the MMR immunization or provide documentation of compliance. Otherwise, they could be excluded though the district has not made plans to take such action.
“This is a rare occurrence, as our experience has been that once the parents/guardians receive the letter indicating the child will not be allowed in school, parents take action to meet one of the methods of meeting compliance with immunization requirements within a day or two,” said Ginger Merkel, the district’s executive director of special education services.
Arlington School District had 43 students as of Tuesday in need of a measles vaccination. That’s down from 176 at the start of the school year, according to district spokesman Gary Sabol. Those students all had personal exemptions in place last school year but those are no longer valid due to the change in state law.
“Our school nurses are working closely with the families to get all the students vaccinated,” Sabol said. “Our goal is 100% compliance with the law but at this point, we’re still just warning families about the exclusion. We haven’t set an exclusion date yet. This is because when students aren’t in school, they aren’t learning.”
In the Snohomish School District, about 130 students remained out of compliance as of Thursday.
By early next week, if they’re still out of compliance, their parents will receive a phone call from their child’s principal. Then a certified letter notifying them of the situation will be sent, according to district spokeswoman Kristin Foley.
Families will have 30 days from receiving that letter to come into compliance or face exclusion in early December, she said in an email.
While state law mandates schools exclude students, no agency is tasked with making sure that happens. It’s left up to the districts, which explains the different timelines and approaches.
“Administrators in schools, preschools and child cares have final responsibility when it comes to immunization compliance,” said Kristen Maki, a public information officer with the state Department of Health.
In most districts, officials have been calling, emailing and sending letters to parents since the summer about immunization requirements.
“We empathize with school leaders having to make that decision, as well as with the students and families being excluded. However, ensuring all students are in full compliance with these requirements benefits all students and the community as a whole,” said Martin Mueller, the state’s assistant superintendent of student engagement and support.