Education

New law means the clock is ticking for some families to get students vaccinated

Getting vaccinated can help stop measles from spreading

Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.
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Since measles is still common in many countries, unvaccinated travelers bring measles to the U.S. and it can spread. But you can protect yourself, your family, and your community with the measles-mumps-rubella (MMR) vaccine.

Last spring, Leslie Van Leishout was preparing for a rocky back-to-school season.

“There was a worry that it would be a challenging beginning of the year with immunizations,” said Van Leishout, director of student support at North Thurston Public Schools, the county’s largest school district.

In 2018-19, the district had 400 students with exemptions for the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine, according to the state Department of Health. But during the 2019 legislative session, lawmakers got rid of personal exemptions — the most common type of exemption — for kids attending schools and child care facilities following measles outbreaks across the country, including 86 cases reported in western Washington. (None were in Thurston County.)

Districts across the state spent the summer notifying parents that personal exemptions for the MMR vaccine will no longer be accepted. This school year, students had to be fully immunized or have a religious or medical exemption by their first day of school, according to the Department of Health.

Those who were not fully immunized were given up to 30 days to get into compliance or the student will be sent home. In North Thurston, about 100 students are in that grace period.

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In the Olympia School District, where the rate of K-12 students with vaccine exemptions was almost twice the state average in 2018-19, officials sent out emails and reminders on social media and directed families to free vaccination clinics offered by the Thurston County Medical Reserve Corps.

The last of the clinics is scheduled for 9 a.m. to noon Sept. 21 at Kaiser Permanente Olympia Medical Center, 700 Lilly Road NE. Kaiser membership is not required to participate.

North Thurston brought in extra staff over the summer to go through vaccine records and track down families with children who were not in compliance. Given all the outreach, Van Leishout said she expects the 30-day deadline to pass as smoothly as the first day of school.

But she has heard of one family that was refusing to comply. Some parents might choose to pull students from school rather than vaccinate, she said.

“I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of fence-sitting,” Van Leishout said. “Whatever parents decide, it’s their right to decide. We just have to follow the law.”

Allison Needles of The News Tribune contributed to this report.

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