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FAQ: How California's new vaccination law works

Photo by Redcorn Studios [Matt] via Flickr Creative Commons

Believe it or not, the new school year is just around the corner. This year, for the first time, some parents will no longer be able to skip vaccinating their kids based on their personal beliefs. It's all because of a law that took effect last Friday.

What does the law do?

This law requires all kids who go to day care or school in California to be vaccinated. It eliminates vaccine exemptions based on personal belief or religion, while maintaining the medical exemption. The law also allows parents of special needs kids to forgo immunizing their children. More on that below.  

The law, authored by State Sens. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento) and Ben Allen (D-Santa Monica), was spurred by the measles outbreak that started at the Disney theme parks in Anaheim in December 2014. Experts say the highly contagious disease was able to spread due to pockets of people who don't vaccinate their kids, and this law is intended to close those gaps.

Does the law apply to all students in all grades?

No. Under the law, kids entering school for the first time - that includes those starting day care or kindergarten, or those who are new to the state - as well as kids entering seventh grade must be vaccinated in order to attend school.

The law grandfathers in students who are already enrolled in school and already have vaccine exemptions based on personal beliefs or religion - at least until they reach seventh grade.

So it will be several more years before all students in California are required to be vaccinated (except for special needs students and those with a medical exemption).

How does the law apply to special needs students?

The law states that its provisions "do not prohibit a pupil who qualifies for an individualized education program ... from accessing any special education and related services required by his or her individualized education program."

This language caused confusion among some school districts, since it did not explicitly refer to those students' vaccination status. Some districts wondered whether they should exclude unvaccinated special needs students, and whether doing so would violate federal law, which requires schools to provide special needs kids with all of the services outlined in their Individualized Education Programs.

The state health and education departments  clarified the situation in April 2016 by noting that special needs students should receive all of the services required by their Individualized Education Programs, "regardless of their vaccination status." 

This wrinkle in the law will likely affect a very small number of new students and incoming seventh graders. In the 2015-16 school year, there were nearly 5,000 sixth graders in the Los Angeles Unified School District with Individualized Education Programs; just 48 of them were unvaccinated due to their parents' personal beliefs.

What are the options for parents who are opposed to vaccination or the vaccination schedule?

Parents who choose not to fully vaccinate their kids can home school them or participate in a multiple-family home school. They would also be able to access public school independent study programs.