Capitol Alert

90 Sacramento-area schools don’t meet vaccine guidelines. Are they ‘tinder of a disease wildfire?’

Amid the worst national measles outbreak in a quarter of a century, more than 90 Sacramento County schools do not have vaccination rates high enough to achieve community immunity against the preventable disease.

More than a dozen of these schools are private and charter schools that reported a disproportionate number of the county’s 309 medical exemptions.

Some of these schools dipped slightly below 95 percent, the threshold considered necessary to defend sick kids who can’t get shots, according to 2018-2019 school year data from the California Department of Public Health.

Others enrolled more than a quarter of kindergarten students who are not fully vaccinated.

Camellia Waldorf in Sacramento reported a 56 percent vaccination rate among its 27 kindergartners. At Sacramento Waldorf in Fair Oaks, 65 percent of the 48 students were vaccinated. The two institutions reported a combined 16 students with medical exemptions.

Another 13 students at A.M. Winn and Alice Birney, the two Sacramento Unified public “Waldorf-inspired” schools, are using medical exemptions to avoid vaccinations. Less than 85 percent of kids in each school are vaccinated.

The numbers underscore the argument some California lawmakers and vaccine proponents are making to require greater government oversight of schools that fall below a 95 percent rate. In Sacramento, the low vaccination rates among alternative-teaching schools highlight a view that families are frequenting the same physicians for medical exemptions.

Some lawmakers now want stricter monitoring of doctors who sign off on a high number of exemptions, saying some doctors aren’t relying on medical science to make their decisions. Reports of injuries from vaccines are extremely rare compared to the hundreds of millions of Americans who have received vaccinations.

But Camellia mom Jenny Woods said she and her husband decided to send all three of their children to Waldorf schools based on the network’s “philosophy of educating the whole child.”

She said she’s not concerned about Camellia’s low vaccination rates because she trusts parents in her community to “make the best possible decisions for their child while keeping other children in the community in mind.”

All three of her children have medical exemptions. Two are now fully vaccinated, but her kindergartner is one shy of all his shots.

“I’m pro-vaccine, yet I have consulted a pediatrician about a delayed schedule,” she said. “We have a history of seizures and epilepsy in our family. Having a lower seizure threshold means being careful about certain medications and additives.”

Woods said the vaccine issue is a complex one.

“Each and every child is unique, with his or her own physical ups-and-downs — illnesses, injuries — and family medical history,” she said. “Enforcing a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach to vaccinating the most vulnerable and smallest members of our society is not the answer.”

Beverly Amico, executive director of Advancement at the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America, said the network is “not anti-vaccine” and its views “do not align with the anti-vaccine movement.”

But she also said the schools can’t interfere with a family’s legal medical decisions, a statement echoed by officials within several public districts. Schools in Twin Rivers, Sacramento City, San Juan, Robla, River Delta Joint, Natomas, Folsom-Cordova, Elk Grove, and Center Joint Unified also reported rates below 95 percent.

But alternative-teaching schools such as Waldorf and charter networks appear to be leading the anti-vaccination movement in county schools. Some have reported double the medical exemptions than many traditional schools with twice their enrollment.

At Gateway Community Outreach Academy, 99 of the 176 kindergartners at the charter school are not fully vaccinated. Fifty have medical exemptions. At its affiliate school, Gateway International School, 21 kindergartners of 68 enrolled without all their shots.

The California Montessori Project in Carmichael reported 87 percent of its 228 students are up to date with their shots, and 10 have medical exemptions.

Gateway’s spokesman Jason Sample said the schools are increasing efforts to educate and build trust with families, many of whom are Slavic and have a general distrust of government.

“It’s more of the historical background for the home country than the U.S. systems,” Sample said. “And it’s a lot of us educating parents and families about the importance of vaccinations and why they’re good for the kids.”

California’s 27 Waldorf schools have markedly low vaccination rates, according to an analysis by The Guardian. And The Bay Area News Group found that five doctors signed off on more than half the medical exemptions in the region.

The Sacramento Waldorf School recently advertised an event sponsored by Dr. Kelly Sutton, who promotes a $97 “step-by-step” tutorial for parents looking to ask doctors for medical exemptions.

Lynne Golodner, the communications consultant for the school, said the flier was “inadvertently included in a school newsletter during a time when staff roles were shifting.”

“This was not a Sacramento Waldorf School sponsored event and we do not advocate for or against anything Dr. Sutton stands for,” Golodner said.

Sutton did not respond to requests for comment.

Now, California lawmakers are moving to tighten the rules. Under the pending Senate Bill 276, state medical officials would have power to monitor doctors who approve five more more medical exemptions.

The legislation was inspired by what its author, Sacramento Democrat Richard Pan, said are “unscrupulous” physicians throughout the state that sell exemptions to families who found a gap in his 2015 bill that cut personal beliefs as legal justification to not vaccinate.

The latest bill would allow the state Department of Public Health to red-flag schools that report low rates and to question the validity of the exemptions.

Though 94.8 percent of California’s kindergartners are fully vaccinated, the number of exemptions have increased four-fold and now cover nearly 5,000 students.

The legislation coincides with a spread of 55 measles cases reported this year in California. Pan has called schools with low vaccination rates the “tinder of a disease wildfire” and said doctors issuing “fraudulent” exemptions that don’t align with federal guidelines should be held accountable.

Charter school representatives said they worry about losing government funding tied to attendance if an outbreak hits their classrooms.

“I don’t want my school community to get hit by measles,” said Barbara Ames, principal of Golden Valley River in Orangevale, a charter school with a 74 percent vaccination rate and 11 medical exemptions.

“I imagine if a family is looking for an exemption, they’re talking with other families,” she continued. “(The state) could investigate the medical authority that’s giving the exemption, track data to see if this is truth. Or is it a sham? I’d like that kind of investigation.”

Golden Valley River dad Robert Laughter, who has an incoming kindergartner and third grade student at the school, said he’s a “hardliner when it comes to immunizations” and that the vaccination data confirmed his suspicions that some parents are obtaining dubious waivers.

“It just feels like a lot of people aren’t looking at the science of things,” he said. “I really think that’s something to be discussed. But that’s going to lead to heated arguments.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom said he would sign the bill after Pan accepted amendments that loosened some of the government’s supervision of doctors. It now applies only to physicians who issue five or more exemptions per year.

But some parents, backed by skeptical lawmakers, have insisted the 2015 law was enough.

Hundreds of concerned families lined up for hours to call the measure “draconian” and “fascist” during its two committee hearings, and many said they’d leave the state or register as Republicans if it passes.

Opponents range from parents who fear their child’s exemption won’t qualify under federal guidelines, to anti-vaxxers who tout conspiracy theories like the since-debunked myth that immunizations cause autism.

The measure now awaits passage in Assembly Appropriations, chaired by Pan’s co-author Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego.

Pan has said children who are too sick to get the shots will be protected under the legislation, and that “if you really need an exemption, then you really need this bill.”

Ladera Ranch mom Jenni Balck, who traveled to Sacramento to testify for the measure, said her immune-compromised daughter relies on community immunity to stay safe at school, and needs SB 276 to ensure everyone around her who can get vaccinated is doing so.

People who choose not to vaccinate are doing so because they feel they are doing the right thing for their child,” Balck said during a June 20 Assembly Health committee hearing.

“But what they think is best for their kids puts my daughter, and others like her, in mortal danger. They have the right to their education in a safe environment, without fear of a preventable disease sending them back to the hospital, or worse.”

Related stories from Sacramento Bee