Shot in the Dark

With SB 277 fully in effect, parents explore shrinking options



Despite fears, it appears that California Senate Bill 277, the controversial public health law that prohibits children from attending public school unless they have been vaccinated against a spectrum of diseases such as Hepatitis B, measles, polio and rubella, has not had a signficant impact on enrollment in local schools. ("Prepare for Impact,"Aug. 25, 2016.) But with the expiration of the Personal Belief Exemption that had allowed some parents to evade requirements, anti-vaccination holdouts are weighing increasingly limited options when it comes to their children's education.

First, the numbers: In the 2016-2017 school year, Humboldt County lagged behind the rest of the state for fully-immunized kindergarten students, with only 86.7 percent of kids entering school with all their shots as compared to the state average of 95.6 percent. Humboldt County seventh graders with their required Tdap (tetanus, diphtheria, pertussis) vaccines also trailed the state average, with 94.8 percent having received their shots (versus 98.3 percent). But these numbers represent a slight improvement over the 2015-2016 school year, with a curiously correlative 4.7 percent more kindergarteners and seventh graders enrolling with all of their shots in Humboldt County.

While specific numbers on how many families might be keeping their kids out of school due to vaccination objections aren't available from the Humboldt County Office of Education, the office was able to confirm that the regulation hasn't decimated numbers in local schools, as some had feared

"In general, schools across Humboldt County have not seen significant enrollment decreases as a result of the enhanced S.B. 277 immunization requirements," said Heidi Moore-Guynup, county assistant superintendent of educational services in a formal statement. "We believe this is because of the general consensus among families across our county that immunizations are an important preventative factor in keeping our young people and our schools healthy."

Anecdotally, staff and teachers at local schools also had little to report by way of the legislation's impact. Some of the smaller schools, which were anticipating a big hit to enrollment numbers and funding once S.B. 277 was fully in place, say most local families have bitten the bullet and gotten their kids' shots up to date.

"Most of our kids that are here have been here," says Jennifer Glueck, superintendent and principal of Big Lagoon Elementary, which last year had a total enrollment of 23 students. "The conversation here is going to be different than in other schools. No one batted an eyelash at the requirements."

Bettina Eipper, director of Coastal Grove Charter School in Arcata, which last year saw 36 percent of its student body entering with personal belief exemptions, says the requirements were a non-issue for them as well.

"People are just complying with the regulations," Eipper told the Journal. "Whatever the rules are, we follow them. There was a lot of anticipation last year to see what would happen, but people just ended up making their decisions."

Use of the Personal Belief Exemption, which allowed parents with personal and religious objections to immunization to skirt the requirements, officially expired on July 1, 2016, although families who had submitted their PBEs prior to Jan. 1, 2016 were exempt for the next grade span. Some children who weren't at the "checkpoints" of either kindergarten or seventh grade were also grandfathered in with partial or no vaccinations, meaning the true impact of the law on enrollment won't be known for several years. In the meantime, parents who remained steadfast in their decision not to vaccinate their kids must get medical exemptions from a doctor — a challenging task.

"I spoke with our local pediatrician about obtaining a medical exemption, even a temporary one, due to my concerns regarding my reaction and my oldest child having a similar reaction," Brianna Owens, a local mother of four told the Journal in an email. "I wanted to discuss our family history and to possibly delay or avoid certain vaccinations."

Owens says she was hospitalized due to a reaction she had to a tetanus shot in her late 20s, and says her daughter had a similar, if less severe, reaction when she was immunized against tetanus, leading her to believe her family has an inherited vulnerability to some vaccines. But Owens' pediatrician said he could only grant an exemption to the Tdap vaccine requirement for her children if she had documentation of an anaphylactic reaction.

"My response was, 'So my child has to die or come close to dying before you will accept that this procedure may not be safe for my family?'" Owens says. She has since found a different doctor, but still has been unable to get a medical exemption, an option that some parents have pursued out of county to the tune of many pages of paperwork and several hundred dollars. (There are several websites that list sympathetic doctors in California, although there don't appear to be any in Humboldt County.)

In the meantime, Owens will be homeschooling her kids, as she did last year. She refers to S.B. 277 as a violation of "human and civil rights," as it has denied her children the right to free and public education. She was one of 20 plaintiffs in a 2016 federal lawsuit seeking to block the law. The judge in the case, Dana Sabraw, ruled against Owens and her co-plaintiffs, refusing to halt implementation of the new law.

"S.B. 277 has become an inconvenience to my family," Owens says. "Last year my healthy children reached the law's 'checkpoints' and our PBEs were no longer valid. We were segregated and forced to do independent study in order to comply with the law. Children with HIV, AIDS, [Hepatitis B], mononucleosis, etc., can attend school. There is no law preventing them from attending school, nor should there be. But healthy children, free of disease, are denied a free public education."

Karen Ashmore, a teacher and principal at Mattole Unified School District in Southern Humboldt, says that she has heard concerns similar to Owens' from other families, although, like other small school districts, she has not encountered significant enrollment issues due to the immunization requirements. Like other educators, Ashmore and her staff have helped parents work through their options, providing independent study and homeschooling programs as needed.

"One family just started their own Christian school," Ashmore says. "We've had all the information in our packet, and registration every year in the office. We were proactive with it."

As an educator in a small community (Honeydew School will have five pupils this year), Ashmore has had a front row seat to the impact of communicable diseases, having watched pertussis sweep through the Mattole Valley three times since she arrived in 1991. Ashmore also holds a degree in molecular biology and is concerned about the loss of herd immunity, which occurs when a community is 95 percent or more vaccinated, protecting the vulnerable among them, the very young and very old, and those who cannot be vaccinated, against infection and death.

"We have staff members with infants and young toddlers," she says. "As a biologist, I like to see the community up to date."

Reach her at 442-1400, extension 317, or Follow her on Twitter @LCStansberry.

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