Stringent standards take effect on Jan. 1

A new law that requires vaccinations for practically all California public school students goes into effect on Jan. 1 and opponents have shown no fear publicly voicing their criticism.

“Gov. Brown has advocated for children’s and parental rights in the past when he vetoed a bill that would make kindergarten mandatory, so it’s perplexing that he would support a completely unnecessary medical mandate,” said Kristen Hundley, president of the nonprofit Our Kids Our Choice (OKOC) in a press release.

The law has sparked controversy among public health officials and critics by striking personal belief exemptions for immunizations.

“With 97.5 percent of California’s school children completely immunized, and the remaining 2.5 percent most likely only opting out of one or two vaccines, there is no justification for removing medical freedoms and parental rights,” Hundley said.

Dr. Karen Haught, Tulare County’s health officer, noted that while immunization rates are high, it never hurts to be thorough when it comes to the prevention of contagious diseases.

“Tulare County has good immunization rates but further increasing immunization rates will enhance public health by strengthening the protection from vaccine-preventable diseases for our children,” she said.

Brenda Crowell, a nurse with Porterville Unified School District, said she believes the law is essential to public health. “We used to not have measles in the United States,” she said. It’s a fact that would still be true today if not for anti-vaccination proponents, argued Crowell.

Kevin Jessee, the Porterville Unified School District’s newly appointed director of special education and student services, said that while the law had clear benefits — protecting students from exposure to potentially life-threatening diseases, viruses and bacteria, as well as preventing future epidemics — it was still not without its problems.

“It pretty much ties our hands,” he said. “It doesn’t really allow for much lateral movement on our part. There’s only so much we can do. In the past we could be much more accommodating to parents [based off their personal choices]. Now we pretty much have one option [for everybody]; get vaccinated.”

According to Jessee, the law is essentially forcing the school district to educate parents who have previously used personal exemptions for their children.

“We have to inform them what [vaccines] are missing [for their child] and how long [the process] is going to take,” he said.

The contact and dissemination of information process is long and labor intensive, according to Jessee.

“We need more manpower,” he said. “We’re trying to add more help [to deal with the volume of work] to better meet the needs of the district. Our nurses are our immunization experts. We’re trying to get the word out. We need a new RN.”

Medical exemptions will still be granted to children with serious health issues. Children whose parents refuse vaccination can try to obtain a medical exemption or be home-schooled. The measure applies to public and private schools, as well as day-care facilities, according to the Associated Press.

“Most students have their shots and we flag those other students with incomplete shots due to medical or personal beliefs in case of an epidemic like the recent measles outbreak at Disneyland,” said Crowell. “This bill should close that gap of parents that [previously] chose personal belief [exemptions].”

One complaint among skeptics of the law is that it could leave lower-income families that can’t afford vaccinations in a lurch, with their children barred from going to school. It’s a concern that Crowell said is mostly unwarranted.

“Most families should be able to quality for the Child Health and Disability Prevention Program (CHDP),” she said. “No documentation is required. It’s a great way to get exams and immunizations.”

Clinics that participate in the program include the Family HealthCare Network and mobile clinics, along with most local doctors.

People without insurance will also be assisted.

“Tulare County is going to work with us to get these kids their shots,” said Crowell. “We don’t want [this law to put] any kids out of school.”

According to a study by the Public Policy Institute of California, two of three Californians (67 percent) and public school parents (65 percent) say that children who have not been vaccinated should not be allowed to attend public schools.

Students and parents have until the beginning of the 2016-17 school year to get up to date on their immunizations, according to Jessee.

“No one is going to be affected this school year,” he said.

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