Sacramento County schools may allow special-needs students to avoid vaccines

A fiercely contested state law eliminates personal-belief exemptions for parents who oppose vaccines, but California’s new rules may not apply to special education students in some Sacramento County school districts.

School leaders say state law doesn’t clearly spell out whether special education students – who have federal protections that trump California requirements – can attend school if they are not vaccinated.

Officials at three Sacramento County districts – San Juan Unified, Twin Rivers Unified and Natomas Unified – said they plan to allow unvaccinated special education students to attend all classes, based on their interpretation of state and federal laws. They said they first plan a vigorous effort to encourage parents of those students to vaccinate their children.

“Federal law does trump state law and we are required to continue to provide them services,” said Jim Sanders, spokesman for Natomas Unified, noting that his district’s plan remains tentative. “We won’t refuse them an education.”

Other districts, such as Sacramento City Unified, are planning to limit unvaccinated students to special education services on campus and have them receive individual instruction elsewhere rather than in general classrooms. That is what the ban’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said was intended by the Legislature.

In Sacramento County, 12 percent of students were classified as special education students in the last school year, according to state data, though only a fraction of those lacked vaccinations. Students qualify based on a specific learning disability, speech impairment, autism, intellectual disability, being deaf or blind, or having other needs defined by the law.

The state law, which takes effect July 1, eliminates personal- and religious-belief exemptions for families who want to avoid vaccinations when they enroll their students in kindergarten or seventh grade – the two designated checkpoint years – or transfer into the school district. Senate Bill 277 also allows students to obtain a medical exemption from a doctor.

But school officials say language in the state law appears to conflict with federal law, which guarantees a variety of services and individualized learning plans for special-needs students.

“The federal law requires services and now we have a state law that says they can’t come to school,” said Gabe Ross, spokesman for Sacramento City Unified.

Most districts won’t know until school begins next year how many special education students lack vaccinations. This year, Sacramento City Unified has about 80 special needs students with personal-belief exemptions in a district that serves about 47,000 students. An even smaller number would be affected by SB 277 since it only applies to students enrolling in kindergarten and seventh grade, or transfers.

Sacramento City Unified health officials, under the advice of attorneys, have decided to review each case individually and may bar unvaccinated special education students from classes that are not part of their individualized education plan, said Terri Fox, head nurse at Sacramento City Unified.

Unvaccinated students with education plans that only call for speech therapy, for example, would be allowed at the school for that service, but may have to be home-schooled for other classes, Fox said.

Some special education students have federally mandated education plans that require them to receive instruction in mainstream classrooms for the child’s benefit. In such cases, districts would violate federal law by pulling students out of classrooms, said Sacramento County Superintendent of Schools David Gordon.

Pan said the intent of SB 277 is to ensure students receive the special education services in their independent-education plans as mandated by federal law. But it doesn’t grant unique access to other classes on school campuses, he said.

“That doesn’t mean, just because you are in special education you can take a regular math class at school,” Pan said.

Barbara Loe Fisher, president of the nonprofit National Vaccine Information Center, which opposed the vaccination law, said Friday that her understanding was that special education students would be exempt from the new vaccine requirements.

Fisher, a vaccine critic, suggested that many children with special needs have learning disabilities due to reactions to vaccinations.

“When you have a child that has suffered a vaccine reaction and has become disabled and has special educational needs, you are putting (parents) in the position of having to choose between giving them an education and protecting the child from further vaccine injury,” she said.

Multiple studies have rejected a link between vaccines and autism. Vaccine manufacturers years ago removed the mercury-containing preservative thimerosal from vaccines, and a British doctor whose 1998 study was often relied upon by vaccine critics was discredited. While medical professionals acknowledge vaccines carry some risk, including allergic reactions, they argue that the benefits of preventing deadly diseases are greater.

Parents of special education students, like any, are divided on the vaccine debate.

Linda Turner of Folsom worries that her medically fragile 14-year-old son, Trey, could come in contact with infected children in his special education classes in the Folsom Cordova Unified district if students are allowed to attend school without vaccinations.

“I would have to say yes, that makes me uncomfortable,” she said.

Turner said her entire family, including her eighth-grade twins, Trey and Rudy, who both have cerebral palsy, have been vaccinated.

An Elk Grove mother, who asked not to be named because she did not want her autistic son identified, opposes the vaccine ban.

“I don’t think anyone should be forced to be vaccinated,” she said.

She said her son began to act differently after being vaccinated, often running in circles and being unable to process what was going on around him.

“I thought he had a stroke or something,” his mother said. “He was like a body with no soul in it.”

Immunizations are safe and are the best way to keep the community free of disease, Pan said.

“Right now we are talking about Zika virus, last year, Ebola. We still have West Nile and Valley Fever and the H1N1 Flu,” Pan said. “We have enough issues with infectious diseases we don’t have a way to prevent. Let’s take care of the ones we can prevent.”

Many school health officials believe that by the time school starts in August, most special education parents will agree to waive their personal-belief statements and will vaccinate their children.

“In the event of a communicable disease outbreak, they may be excluded from school,” said Bonita Mallory, coordinator of student health, wellness and prevention for Twin Rivers Unified. When that happens, most parents opt to vaccinate instead of taking their child out of school, she said.

Elk Grove Unified, the county’s largest school district, and Folsom Cordova Unified, a district of 19,500, are waiting for state guidance before deciding how to proceed, according to their spokespeople.

It’s unclear when that advice will arrive. The California Department of Education and California Department of Public Health are reviewing the law, according to a statement from the Department of Public Health.

Although Pan expects it will take time for the two departments to develop new regulations to help districts comply, he says districts need guidance by July 1.

The Bee’s Loretta Kalb contributed to this report. Diana Lambert: 916-321-1090, @dianalambert