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One in ten Seattle Public Schools students could be barred for lack of vaccination records

caption: Erika Sandoval, a nurse with the Seattle Visiting Nurse Association, gives kindergartener Aron Salinas Castellon a flu shot on Tuesday, October 22, 2019, at Concord International Elementary School in Seattle.
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Erika Sandoval, a nurse with the Seattle Visiting Nurse Association, gives kindergartener Aron Salinas Castellon a flu shot on Tuesday, October 22, 2019, at Concord International Elementary School in Seattle.
KUOW Photo/Megan Farmer

Seattle Public Schools said it is missing immunization records for about one in ten students.

The district sent letters to about 5,700 students’ families Oct. 28th notifying them that they will be barred from school beginning Jan. 8th if they still lack proof of the required immunizations, exemptions, or evidence that they are in the process of getting vaccinated.

State law requires schools and child care centers to turn kids away if they don’t have the required vaccinations or exemptions within 30 days of starting school. But many districts have been lax about enforcement for years.

“Nobody's wanted to kick any students out of school," said Seattle Public Schools Health Services Manager Samara Hoag.

In an October interview, Hoag said the district has not excluded students due to lack of immunization records for more than two decades "because it's so important that kids are in school, and we don't want to have relationships with families that are based on threatening them that their kid can't go to school."

Like many districts, Seattle is now getting stricter after measles outbreaks earlier this year sickened dozens across the state – mostly children. “If we have a measles case, we want to be able to tell the health department ‘these are the kids that are out of compliance,’” Hoag said. “What we're doing right now is just updating our data.”

Hoag said it's not clear how many students actually lack the required vaccinations. She said the district was struggling to make sense of records from other countries, in some cases. In other cases, families handwrote their children's vaccination records, but only official medical records are permissable.

Hoag said the school district sent an initial round of letters to families without complete records in August, and said district health officials and school nurses have been working with families ever since to update the data.

District spokesperson Tim Robinson said after this week's pre-exclusion letter went out, translated into several languages, many families have followed up to update their records. The district advised families that 29 school-based health centers offer vaccinations, as well as primary health care providers and local pharmacies.

The letter also linked to exemption forms on the state health department website. Earlier this year, the state legislature removed the personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella vaccine, leaving only religious or medical exemptions as options for that immunization. Personal or philosophical exemptions are still allowed for other vaccines.

In Seattle Public Schools, families still out of compliance in mid-December are scheduled to receive a final letter informing them that their students will be barred from school beginning in early January if their records are incomplete.

Under state law, exclusions were supposed to begin in Seattle in October. But state health officials say the law does not provide enforcement authority, and leaves it up to districts to comply.

Other districts have hewed closer to the letter of the law. Spokane began excluding 323 students with incomplete immunization paperwork on Oct. 11th. District spokesperson Brian Coddington said only a handful remain out of school at this point. Coddington said such exclusions happen every fall in the district, as well as throughout the year if students fall out of compliance with vaccination schedules.

Edmonds School District told more than 200 students to stay home as of Nov. 1st, and Vashon Island and Everett School Districts plan to exclude students starting Monday. On Vashon, where many families have tended not to vaccinate, only a few elementary students still need their records completed; in Everett, as many as 345 students face exclusion.

Those numbers still pale in comparison to the record-keeping backlog in Seattle Schools, which will be especially challenging to tackle after years of cutbacks to the number of school nurses.

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