Now that California Gov. Jerry Brown has signed into law a bill that says parents can no longer refuse to vaccinate their children in public or private schools based on their personal opposition, schools and parents are parsing the fine print to put the new law into practice.
The law, Senate Bill 277, will roll out in phases, giving school staff time to sort out vaccination compliance issues and parents who oppose full immunization time to sort through their options.
Most school districts in California will be affected, with 47 out of 58 California counties in 2014-15 reporting they had kindergartners with personal belief exemptions to school-required vaccinations.
Still, the numbers are small. Statewide, more than 13,500 kindergartners held personal belief exemptions in 2014-15, a sliver of the state’s kindergarten enrollment of 500,000. And the numbers ranged widely across the state, from two kindergartners in Colusa County to 2,100 kindergartners in Los Angeles County.
In the coming months, the California Department of Public Health, in conjunction with the California Department of Education, will be issuing regulations and guidance to schools. At this point, here are answers to frequently asked questions, as explained in the text of the legislation and in analysis by the lawmakers.
WHAT DOES THE LAW SAY?
Private or public child care centers, preschools, elementary schools and secondary schools cannot admit children unless they are immunized against 10 diseases: diphtheria, Haemophilus influenzae type b (bacterial meningitis), measles, mumps, pertussis (whooping cough), polio, rubella, tetanus, hepatitis B and chicken pox.
If the California Department of Public Health decides to add other vaccination requirements, parents will be allowed to obtain personal belief exemptions for those new vaccinations, the law says.
WHAT DID THE LAW CHANGE?
The law eliminated the personal belief exemption for required vaccinations. This exemption allowed parents to opt out of vaccinating their children by completing a form, signed by a health care practitioner, attesting that vaccinations were counter to their personal beliefs.
The law also overrides an allowance for a religious exemption to vaccinations that Brown had inserted three years ago in previous legislation. The religious exemption was not part of state statute.
ARE THERE EXEMPTIONS TO THE NEW LAW?
Yes, there are three: medical, special education and homeschooling or independent study.
Young children and students may obtain a written medical exemption to vaccinations from a licensed physician. The reason for the medical exemption may include family medical history.
A child who has an individualized education program, as required under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, will be allowed to obtain special education services regardless of whether the child is vaccinated or not.
The law states that the vaccination requirements do not apply to students who are enrolled in a home-based private school or an independent study program. Some questions remain about whether students enrolled in independent study through publicly funded district or charter schools would be exempt from complying with the law; the issue will be clarified in guidance from the California Department of Public Health.
WHEN DOES THE LAW GO INTO EFFECT?
July 1, 2016.
WILL KINDERGARTNERS BE ALLOWED TO ENROLL “CONDITIONALLY” IF THEY HAVE NOT YET COMPLETED THE REQUIRED VACCINATIONS?
Yes. School districts already have their own systems for tracking and following up with kindergartners who are not fully immunized. Whatever systems districts are currently using will remain in place.
WHAT ABOUT CHILDREN WHO CURRENTLY HAVE PERSONAL BELIEF EXEMPTIONS ON FILE?
Children who hold personal belief exemptions to vaccinations before Jan. 1, 2016 are “grandfathered in.” The new law does not apply to them until they reach their next vaccination checkpoint – kindergarten or 7th grade.
If it is determined that a child has been exposed to one of the 10 diseases named in the immunization requirements and does not have proof of immunization, the child may be temporarily kept out of school.
If parents wish to obtain a personal belief exemption before Jan. 1, 2016, they should go to their child’s school, pick up a personal belief exemption form, meet with a health care practitioner and obtain the practitioner’s signature, and return the form to the school before the deadline. A health care practitioner is defined for these purposes as a school nurse, doctor, nurse practitioner, naturopath, osteopath or physician’s assistant.
WILL UNVACCINATED CHILDREN WHO MOVE FROM ONE CALIFORNIA SCHOOL OR DISTRICT TO ANOTHER HAVE TO MEET THE VACCINATION REQUIREMENTS OF NEW STUDENTS?
Newly enrolled students are required to be up to date on immunizations. Whether the personal belief exemption will travel with students relocating within California is thought to be likely, but will be clarified in forthcoming guidance.
WHAT VACCINATIONS ARE REQUIRED OF UNVACCINATED STUDENTS BEFORE ENTERING 7TH GRADE?
As of July 1, 2016, all students entering 7th grade will be required to have the pertussis vaccination, including all pertussis boosters appropriate for the student’s age.
It’s not yet clear what, if any, other vaccinations those previously unvaccinated students may have to receive – but it won’t include the hepatitis B vaccination, which is given in a series of three shots. The law specifically states that full immunization against hepatitis B is not a requirement for entering 7th grade. The issue will be clarified in the forthcoming guidance from the California Department of Public Health.
WHAT ARE THE OPTIONS FOR PARENTS WHO DO NOT WANT TO HAVE THEIR CHILDREN VACCINATED?
Parents who do not want to vaccinate will have two options for their kindergartners and seventh graders starting in fall 2016: obtain a medical exemption to vaccinations or enroll in homeschooling or independent study.
WHAT IS HOMESCHOOLING AND INDEPENDENT STUDY?
According to the California Homeschool Network, parents who wish to homeschool have four options:
The first is to establish their own private home school by filing a private school affidavit. Parents are free to collaborate with other homeschools. Homeschools are required to teach California mandated subject areas, but have latitude as to when and how such subjects are taught.
The second option is to join another private home school and become a “satellite” home school.
Third, parents may enroll in a district or charter public school that offers independent study. The student receives assignments from a teacher but fulfills most of the work independently.
The fourth option is to homeschool by hiring a credentialed tutor.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of the story erroneously stated that the Legislature would vote to add other vaccination requirements.