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Students without whooping cough vaccination or exemptions sent home by thousands

Published: Friday, Sep. 16, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Sunday, Sep. 18, 2011 - 12:20 pm

California schools are sending thousands of students home and grouping others in campus gyms as they bump up against a state-imposed deadline that requires all seventh- through 12th-graders to get whooping cough booster shots or signed exemptions.

In the coming weeks, thousands more students will be affected as districts hit the deadline, which requires proof of immunizations or exemptions within 30 days of the first day of school.

The 30-day timeline ended this week for Elk Grove Unified, the largest district in the region, with 28,000 students in grades seven through 12. On Wednesday, district officials told 200 students they would be barred from class until they provided the required paperwork; for those who showed up anyway Thursday, their parents were called to pick them up.

At the start of the week, 700 students lacked the required paperwork, said district spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich. By Thursday evening, that number had dropped to 140, she said.

School districts across the state are struggling to get families to adhere to the vaccination deadline, which was initially supposed to be the first day of school, but in July was extended by 30 days.

With a week before its deadline, the Vacaville Unified School District has about 1,550 students still needing vaccinations – one-fourth of the students in grades seven through 12, according to media reports. In San Francisco, approximately 2,000 students were sent home Thursday.

Sacramento City Unified, which has an Oct. 6 deadline, still needs shot records or exemptions for 6,000 students.

"We are asking all families who have yet to turn in documentation to do so immediately," said Sac City Unified spokesman Gabe Ross.

Lawmakers passed the legislation last year requiring a whooping cough, or pertussis, vaccination as the disease reached epidemic proportions. Ten infants died of the disease in 2010.

Reported cases of whooping cough remain higher than in past years, but have dropped significantly since last year's outbreak. Through August 10, doctors reported 2,164 whooping cough cases statewide; during the entire prior year, there were 9,143.

No whooping cough deaths have been reported in the state this year.

The new vaccine requirement is met by having a Tdap (tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis) booster shot on or after a student's seventh birthday. The Tdap booster is covered by most health insurance, and school districts have held free clinics for families without coverage.

Parents can exempt their child from the vaccine based on personal beliefs or a medical condition by filling out a special form.

Assemblyman Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, one of the authors on the legislation, said some districts planned for the vaccination deadline better than others.

"We have to take this seriously," Fletcher said. "We believe schools can comply with this. They had a fairly long time, and I'm not inclined to extend it again."

The state has warned school districts for months that students without a vaccination or signed exemption form won't be able to attend classes.

"There is no conditional entry," Dr. John Talarico, chief of the Department of Public Health's Immunization Branch, said during an online seminar for school officials in December. "If they have the vaccine, they can enter. If they don't have the vaccine or an exemption form, then they cannot."

Still, some area districts are letting them come anyway.

The Natomas Unified School District informed hundreds of students Thursday that, starting Monday, they will be able to come to school, but will have to report to the gym and not their regular classes if they don't turn in their shot record or exemption form.

Interim Superintendent Walt Hanline said the district has about 1,000 students who have not complied.

"Staff has done everything but go home and bring the parents to the shots," Hanline said.

The cash-strapped district will spend $10,000 to bring two free whooping cough clinics to Inderkum and Natomas high schools today.

"Every student is expected to be at school," Hanline said. "We will continue to educate kids. We will house them in the gym. We will have teachers available to assist them in their work."

Folsom Cordova Superintendent Debbie Bettencourt said the deadline seemed arbitrary and that her district would not pull students out of school.

"We will not withhold education from our students," she said.

Officials at Twin Rivers Unified in northern Sacramento County sent an email to principals saying "not to exclude large numbers of students, but to continue to work with each school and health assistant on getting students into compliance through phone calls and notices."

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