SoCal school districts use different tactics to implement vaccination law

A school nurse prepares a vaccine against whooping cough before giving it to students at Mark Twain Middle School in Los Angeles.
A school nurse prepares a vaccine against whooping cough before giving it to students at Mark Twain Middle School in Los Angeles.
Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

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As the academic year gets underway, large school districts in Southern California are using different tactics to enforce the state's new vaccination law.

Under the law, parents can no longer opt out of vaccinating their incoming kindergartners or 7th graders on the basis of personal or religious beliefs. The law also applies to students of any grade who are new to the state.

The only students exempt from the law are those who can not be vaccinated for medical reasons or who are on Individualized Education Programs.

At the Santa Ana Unified School District, nurses started reaching out to families back in the spring, says Doreen Lohnes, the district's assistant superintendent for special education and health services. The nurses notified parents of rising 7th graders with personal or religious exemptions that they would need to come into compliance with the law. 

When classes started in Santa Ana Unified schools two weeks ago, 130 kids – mostly 7th graders – were not yet fully vaccinated, says Lohnes. Those students weren't allowed to attend class, she says, adding that they were kept in the school office area and given work assignments.

At last check, just nine students were still out of compliance, says Lohnes.

"It did require an effort, and it did require a push, and dissemination, publicity and follow up, but the result is a really good one," she says, adding that higher vaccination rates will help protect the health of all of the district's students and families.

FAQ: How California's new vaccination law works

The Riverside Unified School District says it also reached out before school started to families of incoming 7th graders with vaccine exemptions on file. When classes started last week, 46 students – 16 of them 7th graders – couldn't register for class because they did not have all of their required vaccinations, says Tim Walker, assistant superintendent for pupil services.

Riverside Unified took a more proactive approach, he says. It referred these kids to its health center, where they received their shots. They were all in class by the next day, says Walker.

The Los Angeles Unified School District says it conducted extensive outreach to families as well. On the first day of school, just four seventh grade students did not have their whooping cough booster shot; all four have since been vaccinated.

L.A. Unified spokeswoman Ellen Morgan says the district cannot provide vaccination data for kindergarteners or new students, explaining that these children "are not given a student ID number or programmed into their classes until they have met all of the school entry requirements."

Long Beach Unified School District and the Santa Monica-Malibu Unified School District say they are still processing the vaccination data from their schools.

Gov. Jerry Brown signed the vaccination law last year; the measure was spurred in part by the measles outbreak that began at the Disney theme parks in Anaheim in December 2014.

The legislation was controversial; parents opposed to vaccinations or the vaccination schedule threatened to pull their children out of school to avoid the law's requirements. Since it became law, opponents circulated petitions seeking to place a measure on the November ballot asking voters whether they wanted to keep the law. The effort fell well short of the number of signatures needed to qualify.

This summer, a group of parents and advocacy organizations filed a lawsuit seeking to have the law voided on the grounds that it violates the California Constitution's guarantee of an education for every child. Last month, a judge rejected the plaintiffs' request for a preliminary injunction that would have put the law on hold. The plaintiffs subsequently withdrew their suit with the intention of refining their legal arguments and filing a new complaint in October, said plaintiff co-counsel Jim Turner.

This story has been updated to note that students on Individualized Education Programs are also exempt from the vaccination law, that the law applies to students who are new to the state, and that the plaintiffs have temporarily withdrawn their lawsuit seeking to overturn the law.