Seattle kids without measles vaccine or paperwork will be excluded from school
When Tracy Bennett, the head of Seattle Waldorf School, got word last spring that the state would make it a lot harder to forgo the measles, mumps, and rubella vaccine, she got to work.
She dedicated a staff member at the private school to contact parents about the law – and make sure their children were immunized.
And she wrote an email that was straight to the point: “If your child has not received the MMR immunization due to personal/philosophical objections to that immunization,” she said, “your child will not be able to attend school.”
It has long been Washington state law that kids can’t attend school unless they show proof of the MMR vaccine – or submit a medical, personal, or religious exemption. But that law has rarely, if ever, been enforced.
But this new law, which gets rid of the personal exemption, seems to have ushered in a sense of urgency.
Seattle Public Schools will exclude students who don't have paperwork, said spokesperson Tim Robinson.
"Our student health department is working to identify a date in near future when we might send pre-exclusion letter," Robinson said. "After that letter is sent, family has 30 days to get records updated."
In the past, many families simply didn’t submit paperwork, which was its own form of vaccine avoidance.
Orcas Island is an example of this: Last year, there were 55 kindergartners, of whom just 3 had an exemption. Another 37 had no paperwork at all.
Overall, nine out of 10 kids in Washington state have received the MMR vaccine. But there are schools and neighborhoods where far fewer children are immunized, making all students more susceptible to disease.
The new law getting rid of the personal exemption came after dozens of Washington children contracted measles in separate outbreaks this year.
Eighty percent of children who contracted measles in the measles outbreak in southwest Washington last year had not received the MMR vaccine.
This wasn’t lost on Tracy Bennett at Seattle Waldorf, who watched the outbreak with unease. At her school, 35 percent of sixth graders last year had a vaccine exemption, a particularly high rate.
Bennett could not say on Monday whether more parents would submit a medical or religious exemption to skirt the new MMR law. But she didn’t believe so. And no families had left to homeschool their children rather than get the vaccine.
Families had been supportive, Bennett said. “Our rate of immunization will be significantly higher,” she said. The day before school started, everyone’s paperwork was in order.
Achieving that wasn’t easy. Vaccines are an emotional issue in Seattle, for families on both sides of the issue. And finding paperwork can be tough, especially for immigrant students whose records are in other languages. At Seattle Waldorf, records were translated from Chinese, and tracked down in India and Japan.
Parents have been nervous about vaccines since the dawn of American democracy, dating back to the Revolutionary War, but hesitation about the MMR vaccine jumped in the late 1990s. That’s when Andrew Wakefield, a former British surgeon, wrote a paper linking the vaccine to kids who showed signs of autism.
A British journalist later tracked down the parents in the study, and found that Wakefield had lied about his case studies, including when symptoms appeared.
Wakefield said children had developed signs of autism seven days after the vaccine, but in some cases, symptoms showed up six months later, or even months before the child received the vaccine.
Wakefield lost his medical license, and his paper was retracted, but the damage has proven long-lasting, as parents weigh whether Wakefield may have been onto something.
Studies have since shown no connection between autism and the MMR vaccine, but doubt still lingers, with people in the anti-vaccine community saying that science had redeemed Wakefield. (It has not.)
The recent outbreaks in this state – and around the country – have been a jolt for many school communities after what had been years of reticence to enforce the state’s vaccination requirements.
Elsewhere in King County this summer, schools like Seattle Waldorf have pushed for higher MMR vaccine rates.
The Renton School District organized a district-wide immunization clinic for all students and hosted an “immunization field trip” for homeless students.
The Northshore School District, which had a single measles case this spring, is asking teachers and staff members to show they are immune to measles, mumps, and rubella, even though teachers aren’t mandated to have the vaccine.
The Kent School District is hosting a clinic in October for students in south King County.
Unrelated to the MMR, Seattle Public Schools is hosting flu clinics at most of its schools this fall.
While schools are required to turn away students who have not presented proof of vaccination within 30 days, that’s an unappealing option for districts.
But the State Board of Health has indicated that it is serious about this law. The board voted recently to remove the 30-day grace period in the 2020-21 school year. These tougher standards won’t apply to homeless students or those in foster care.
Back at Seattle Waldorf, Bennett demurred when asked if the law offered her relief. “I welcomed the clarity and commitment to community health,” she said.