As Sacramento area school districts step up efforts to ensure that kindergartners and seventh graders get vaccinated so they can attend class, a federal judge in San Diego is weighing whether to temporarily block the law that eliminated parents’ ability to exempt their children from shots by citing personal beliefs.
Rebecca Estepp, spokeswoman for the nonprofit Education 4 All Foundation, said U.S. District Judge Dana Sabraw announced he expects to decide the week of Aug. 22 whether to temporarily halt Senate Bill 277 while a lawsuit goes forward. The foundation is one of 21 plaintiffs in the suit.
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Last week, scores of students missed the opening days of classes in the Sacramento region because they showed up without their proof of vaccinations. A number of large districts have yet to start fall classes. San Juan Unified starts its fall semester on Thursday and Sacramento City Unified starts classes Sept. 1.
Gov. Jerry Brown last year signed SB 277 by Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, making California the third state in the nation that eliminated religious and personal belief exemptions for vaccination requirements. The law took effect July 1. Opponents said the law violated parental rights and deprived their children of their constitutional right to an education.
The new law requires students entering the two checkpoint years of kindergarten and seventh grade to show proof of vaccination as a condition of attending class. The requirement also applies to children in day care and students who transfer into a district.
The federal lawsuit names the state of California and its departments of Education and Public Health, among others. It complains that the plaintiffs, 17 individuals and four nonprofit organizations, have suffered severe and irreparable injury under the law in that it violates state and federal constitutional protections of due process. Tests show that the son of the lead plaintiff, Ana Whitlow, for example, has already developed an immunity to three diseases, pertussis (whooping cough), diphtheria and tetanus. Nevertheless, the boy’s school has refused to enroll him in the seventh grade unless he receives the required vaccine, the suit said.
The lawsuit said that while the Legislature exempted special needs or disabled students – those with individualized education plans – from the requirements, some California school districts still are refusing to allow those students to remain in school, taking the position that the law’s language lacks clarity.
The California Department of Education issued a statement saying it could not comment on ongoing litigation. But state Superintendent Tom Torlakson said vaccinating students “is the law, and it’s the right thing to do for public health.”
The Sacramento City Unified School District earlier this month worked with WellSpace Health in offering immunization clinics to students. It has a series of additional free clinics at its district enrollment center in south Sacramento through Sept. 8. The district also is reaching out to individual families whose children, according to school records, do not have current immunizations, said spokesman Gabe Ross.
Ross said regardless of the court’s decision, no contingency plans should be necessary. “We would still encourage all families to get students vaccinated, just like we did before the law,” he said.
Classes began last Tuesday for thousands of students at Elk Grove Unified and Folsom Cordova Unified. This week, officials for both districts said they are tracking the numbers of students out of school because they lack immunizations. Neither had immediate updates Monday based on that tracking.
At Elk Grove, spokeswoman Xanthi Pinkerton on Friday said that the district had identified 133 seventh-graders or kindergartners who lacked proof of immunization required to attend school, out of about 10,000 in the two grade levels. At Folsom Cordova, spokesman Daniel Thigpen last week said 98 students remained out of class on the fourth day of school – 37 in kindergarten and 61 in seventh grade.
Natomas Unified spokesman Jim Sanders said the school district’s extensive outreach through the summer meant that no students were sent home last Wednesday, the first day of Natomas classes, for lack of a vaccination.
Immunizations have been required in California schools since 1962, starting with the polio vaccine, according to the California Department of Public Health. A measles outbreak tied to a case at Disneyland in 2015 prompted lawmakers to impose the stricter requirements.
Pan said Monday that Disneyland has had previous measles outbreaks since it is an international destination. Measles spread from the park last year, he said, “because of pockets of low immunizations.”
“It’s important that we start working this year to restore community immunity,” he said.