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A new vaccination law has school administrators caught between a needle and a hard place

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As the first day of school approaches, there's an anxiety building in many administrative offices throughout Humboldt County. The anxiety doesn't seem to be pervasive, but cloistered in different pockets throughout the region. And it centers around a simple question: Will students show up?

It's not your typical first day of school stress, but this isn't your typical year and Humboldt isn't your typical California county.

"We have to wait and see how it shakes out," said Stephanie Steffano-Davis, principal of Whitethorn Elementary. "But at this point, what I'm hearing is that vaccination is an issue for a lot of people and they're looking at alternatives. A lot of people are looking at alternatives to public education."

With a new state law on the books that mandates that just about every child in California be fully vaccinated for 10 communicable diseases before attending school, some, like Steffano-Davis, are worried about the impacts. And they could be dramatic. Humboldt County, which ranked 52nd of California's 58 counties in vaccination rates for incoming kindergarteners last school year, when 10.4 percent of Humboldt's 1,741 kids entered school with a personal belief exemption (PBE) that sidestepped mandatory vaccinations.

But the issue is far from equally spread throughout the county. Vaccination beliefs seem to have a cultural component that leads to geographically clustered families who believe vaccination isn't in their children's best interests. Consider that 78 of Humboldt County's 181 kindergarteners with personal belief exemptions last year came from four schools. Or that if the law had gone into effect last year, Coastal Grove Charter School in Arcata would have seen its incoming kindergarten class drop from 28 students to just nine.

Of course, the hope with the new law is that parents will opt to vaccinate their children and send them to school. But there's a lot of uncertainty, in Humboldt County, anyway, as to whether that will happen. Some families clearly are not going to do it.

Take Tenae LaPorte, who has quit her job in a local dermatologist's office to homeschool her children. She had planned on sending them to Fieldbrook Elementary but is dead set against vaccinating them. "We can do this," LaPorte said of homeschooling and shifting her family from a two- to a one-income household, "because it's currently our only option we are willing to take."

By any measure, California's mandatory vaccination law, Senate Bill 277, has been controversial.

Prompted by increasing rates of unvaccinated children, coupled with a recent measles outbreak at Disneyland that saw more than 40 people infected in just a few days and a state-declared whooping cough epidemic, S.B. 277 promised to take California from being one of the least stringent in the country to one of the most. The law did away with personal and religious belief exemptions, saying that — absent a legitimate medical reason — all students would need to be fully vaccinated to transfer to a California school from out of state, enter childcare, kindergarten or seventh grade. While the law grandfathers in some students with personal belief exemptions, it essentially ensures that all public school students who are medically able will be vaccinated within six years.

As the bill approached a vote on the Senate floor last summer, its opponents charged it violated their civil rights and religious freedoms, comparing it to something that would have spawned from Nazi Germany. The bill's proponents, meanwhile, brought in a 7-year-old leukemia patient as the bill's poster child, arguing the bill would protect him and his weakened immune system, which couldn't handle shots, from preventable diseases. By the time the bill had passed and been signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, its author had received death threats and attempts were already underway for a ballot measure to overturn the new law (it ultimately failed to qualify).

It's easy to understand the controversy. After all, the bill mandated a medical treatment for children that some fear has adverse health impacts, with state lawmakers essentially telling parents: We're putting public health before your concerns for your immediate family.

"The science is clear that vaccines dramatically protect children against a number of infectious and dangerous diseases," Brown wrote in his signing statement for the bill. "While it's true that no medical intervention is without risk, the evidence shows that immunization powerfully benefits and protects the community."

But the bill also did something many in the public didn't expect: It put schools on the front lines of California's immunization war. Because the Legislature didn't want to fund an enforcement mechanism, it simply made vaccinations a condition of education and forced administrators to be the gatekeepers.

"We are very frustrated that we are now the immunization police," said Julia Anderson, the executive director of Beginnings in Briceland, which includes Skyfish elementary school and a child care center. "This new law has a lot of parents in a total uproar."

While the new law may have parents in some communities in an uproar, administrators at the schools that will potentially face the biggest impacts don't seem to want to talk about it. Scores of calls and emails to administrators at schools with historically large numbers of personal belief exemptions went unreturned. When administrators did reply, the response was generally curt.

"We don't know the impacts yet ... won't know until we see how many students arrive on August 25th," wrote Catherine Scott, superintendent of Southern Humboldt Unified School District, in an email. The district is home to Miranda Junior High, where 26 of 60 students entered seventh grade last year with a personal belief exemption and without all their required vaccinations. Phone calls and a follow up email asking for additional information went unreturned.

It's not difficult to understand why administrators would be on edge given what's at stake. In California, school funding is tightly tied to enrollment and attendance. That means parents' deciding that homeschooling their children is preferable to vaccinating them has a direct impact on school budgets and, consequently, staffing.

Consider the case of Coastal Grove Charter School in Arcata, a Waldorf inspired school that serves about 230 students in kindergarten through eighth grade. According to the state, only nine of its 28 kindergarteners started last year up to date on all their vaccinations (19 had PBEs). Its seventh grade class last year saw nine of its 25 students enter the grade with a PBE and without required vaccinations. If those numbers carried over to this year, the school would have to turn away 28 students, or about 12 percent of its student body.

According to Lynette Kerr, chief business official at the Humboldt County Office of Education, state school funding is a complex formula that's hard to convert into simple math. The per-pupil rates the state pays schools fluctuate by grade span, are contingent on attendance figures and can include additional supplemental funding for districts that have high rates of poor students, English language learners and/or foster youth. But Kerr said the base funding rate from the state for this school year is about $7,820 for kids in kindergarten through third grade and about $7,400 for seventh and eighth graders.

Going back to Coastal Grove, if the school were to see those 28 students vanish from its rolls this year, that would represent a funding reduction of more than $215,000. And it's worth noting — especially as many of the Humboldt County schools with the lowest vaccination rates are charter schools — that while the state funds traditional public schools based on the prior year's enrollment numbers, it funds charter schools based on the current year. That means if a charter school sees enrollment drop by 28 students this year due to vaccination concerns, or anything else, it would have to find and cut roughly $215,000 in this year's budget.

So administrators are anxious. But Kerr said that while she'll often get a flurry of calls from a principal or superintendent concerned about a pending enrollment drop, asking her to run some financial numbers, she said she hasn't gotten any in the lead up to this school year. She said she's not sure why. Whatever the reason, she said she expects the calls will start along with the school year.

Down in Whitethorn, Principal Steffano-Davis sighed when reached by phone and asked about the potential enrollment and funding fallout of S.B. 277. "I don't want to hypothesize about that at this time," she said. "It's best not to make dire predictions."

In part, it's hard to predict the fallout from the new law because it's pushing some families into uncharted territory. Parents who thought they would never vaccinate due to health or religious concerns are now being forced to prioritize that against the vision they had for their children's education.

Tenae LaPorte and her family in McKinelyville are an example of that. Last year, LaPorte's oldest daughter was in first grade at Fieldbrook Elementary School and the family loved the small country school and the education she was getting there. LaPorte and her husband have two other kids as well — a 5-year-old girl and a 4-month-old boy. The plan was for them all to attend Fieldbrook. But, with the passage of S.B. 277, that plan has changed. LaPorte said she initially tried to find a way to keep her girls in school together but ran into lots of confusion about the law before finally determining it wasn't going to be possible. The oldest of her girls could have stayed enrolled at Fieldbrook until seventh grade, but LaPorte said she saw too many problems with sending one girl off to school every day while homeschooling the other. She's now enrolled them both in a home school program through Aldergrove Charter School in Eureka.

LaPorte, who's now leaving her job, said home schooling was something she always thought would be "cool" in the abstract. Now, formulating lessons and plans for two separate grade levels will become her reality. She said she feels like she doesn't have a choice in the matter.

And that's a hard position for a parent. "Homeschooling is not for everyone," explained Julia Anderson, the executive director at Beginnings, adding that it takes a tremendous dedication of time and energy for a parent to give their children a good education at home. The new vaccine law will have impacts on some of the support systems set up for homeschoolers, as well.

A number of schools in Humboldt offer independent study models in which parents provide most of their children's instruction, but have a credentialed teacher helping to guide the curriculum. This type of model could be an attractive option for some schools and districts that see a threat of declining enrollment due to the new vaccine law, as it keeps students technically enrolled at the school, securing their funding allotments from the state.

But a lot of these programs are somewhat of a hybrid model, relying on some in-class instruction for labs, learning activities and small group discussions and activities. Some models have students attending a learning center multiple days a week. But, under the new law, unvaccinated children will no longer be able to participate in these group activities.

Sitting in her office at the Humboldt County Office of Education, Special Education Director Tess Ives said there's one other large issue looming with the new vaccination law: What to do with the thousands of kids in Humboldt County who receive some sort of special education through what's called an individualized education plan, or an IEP.

Under the law, districts and the county are responsible for providing the specialized services these kids need to get an education, a huge spectrum of offerings that range from special day classes to a bit of extra instruction or therapy. Even though schools might not be able to admit unvaccinated children under S.B. 277, that doesn't alleviate their special education obligations.

Ives said her office and districts will be working in the coming weeks and years to figure out what this means on a case-by-case basis. In the case of children with autism spectrum disorder, this may necessitate keeping them in special day class full time, even if they are unvaccinated. For a student with a mild speech impediment, meanwhile, it might mean simply arranging in-home speech therapy for him or her, or arranging the occasional visit to campus to get those services.

"I think we'll be getting calls about it," Ives said, adding that it's going to take a bit of time to sort out what this new system of providing services to unvaccinated special education students looks like.

But Ives, who previously led Glen Paul, a school for the severely handicapped that operates on multiple campuses throughout the county, said schools will also have to think about protecting their most vulnerable students. As an example, she pointed to students with weakened immune systems due to illness like leukemia. "We really need to protect the safety of kids who are not immunized because they can't be," she said.

As students return to school throughout Humboldt County in the coming weeks, administrators will be busy checking vaccination records, eyeing enrollment numbers and coming up with specialized plans to meet the changing needs of their student bodies. And in some cases, they'll be revising budgets and maybe even letting teachers go.

And, almost assuredly, they will be turning some children away. That's a new and uncomfortable position for many of them.

"(Lawmakers) definitely put it in the laps of the schools when they made that law," said Steffano-Davis reflectively. "I'm hoping children can go to school. That's what I want to see. I want to educate kids."

At a Glance: SB 277

Eliminates the personal and religious belief vaccination exemptions

Requires parents or guardians to fully vaccinate children before entering them into child care, kindergarten and seventh grade, and before transferring them into California schools from another state or country

Allows students with an existing personal belief exemption on file to continue in school until the next transition (kindergarten or seventh grade)

The law continues to honor and accept exemptions for medical reasons

Conditional admissions will be available for students behind on their immunization but in the process of getting them

Requires schools to keep immunization records for all students and report them to the state

Requires that students be immunized against 10 diseases: diphtheria, hepatitis B, haemophilus influenza type B, measles, mumps, pertussis, poliomyelitis, rubella, tetanus, chickenpox

Personal Belief Exemptions (PBEs) 2015-2016

Child Care

Location . . . % of entering students with PBEs

Mono . . . 11.7

Humboldt . . . 11.1

Siskiyou . . . 10.7

Statewide . . . 2.3

Humboldt Childcare Facilities with the Highest PBE rates for incoming children

Name . . . Location . . . % entering with PBEs (# with PBEs v. total incoming enrollment)

Humboldt Stepping Stones . . . Garberville . . . 59 (13 of 22)

HSU Child Development Center . . . Arcata . . . 37 (13 of 35)

Salmonberry Preschool . . . Trinidad . . . 36 (8 of 22)

Little Redwoods Preschool . . . Redway . . . 34 (13 of 41)

Turner's Learning Center . . . McKinleyville . . . 22 (5 of 23)


Location . . . % of entering students with PBEs

Nevada . . . 18.4

Trinity . . . 14.4

Mariposa . . . 13.4

Mono . . . 11.1

Calveras . . . 10.5

Humboldt . . . 10.4

Statewide . . . 2.4

Humboldt Elementary Schools with the Highest PBE rates for Incoming Kindergarteners

Name . . . Location . . . % entering with PBEs (# with PBEs v. total incoming enrollment)

Coastal Grove Charter . . . Arcata . . . 68 (19 of 28)

Mattole Valley Charter . . . Petrolia . . . 60 (38 of 63)

Fuente Nueva Charter . . . Arcata . . . 39 (9 of 23)

Garfield Elementary . . . Eureka . . . 36 (4 of 11)

Trinidad Elementary . . . Trinidad . . . 32 (7 of 22)

SEVENth Grade

Location . . . % of entering students with PBEs

Alpine . . . 12.5

Nevada . . . 11.87

Plumas . . . 10.44

Tuolumne . . . 9.53

Humboldt . . . 8.85

Statewide . . . 1.66

Humboldt Schools with the Highest PBE rates for Incoming Seventh Graders

Name . . . Location . . . % entering with PBEs (# with PBEs v. total incoming enrollment)

Coastal Grove Charter . . . Arcata . . . 36 (9 of 25)

Mattole Valley Charter . . . Petrolia . . . 53 (17 of 32)

Laurel Tree Charter . . . Arcata . . . 50 (6 of 12)

Miranda Junior High . . . Miranda . . . 43 (26 of 60)

Trinidad Elementary School . . . Trinidad . . . 50 (8 of 16)

For more information

For more information on Senate Bill 277 and vaccinations, visit

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