The COVID-19 pandemic interrupted many facets of daily life, including routine health screenings, vaccinations and medical check-ups. As the 2021–22 school year begins, more than one in eight children in California need to catch up on routine vaccines that were missed or delayed during the pandemic, according to the California Department of Public Health.
“Schools are taking important steps to keep students safe and limit the spread of disease. Do your part to keep students healthy, in school, and ready to learn; make sure they are up to date with needed vaccines,” said Dr. Tomás J. Aragón, CDPH director and state public health officer. “Many children missed routine checkups and immunizations due to the COVID-19 pandemic. If you haven’t done so already, check with your child’s doctor to find out what immunizations they need, including COVID-19 vaccines and boosters.”
Many vaccine-preventable diseases, such as whooping cough and measles, can easily spread in school settings. Students and staff with weakened immune systems are especially vulnerable. CDPH reports that currently there are measles outbreaks in every region of the world due to disruptions in vaccination campaigns during the pandemic. California’s last large measles outbreak in 2015 was largely among unvaccinated individuals.
California law requires students to receive certain immunizations in order to attend public and private elementary and secondary schools as well as licensed child care centers. Schools and licensed child care centers are required to enforce immunization requirements, maintain immunization records of all children enrolled, and report students’ immunization status to CDPH.
Families that are having difficulty obtaining required immunizations prior to the start of school can contact their local health department for help in finding a place to get needed immunizations.
California immunization requirements
Since 2015, California legislators have passed a series of laws requiring certain immunizations, repealing the personal belief exemption and cracking down on doctors who approve vaccination exemptions without actual cause.
Senate Bill 276 (Pan, D-Sacramento) requires a clinically trained physician, surgeon or registered nurse from the CDPH to annually review immunization reports from schools and institutions to identify those with an overall immunization rate of less than 95 percent; doctors who submitted five or more medical exemption forms in a calendar year; and schools and institutions that do not report immunization rates to the department. The law also prohibits doctors from charging any fees for vaccination-related exams or forms related to such dispensation.
If a CDPH staff member finds that a medical exemption is inappropriate or otherwise invalid, it will be reviewed by the state public health officer or their physician/surgeon designee and revoked under prescribed circumstances. Medical exemptions written before Jan. 1, 2020, are not under state review, but new medical exemptions are required when a child enters kindergarten, seventh grade or changes schools.
In 2021, the state created an online portal so that immunization records will go directly to the CDPH; the portal also allows school administrators access once a child attending the school has been issued a medical exemption in the system.
Vaccination checkpoints and other details
Districts should have a process in place to check vaccination records at the designated checkpoints: when children newly enroll in the district, enroll in transitional kindergarten/kindergarten and when students advance to grade seven. Schools are required to document each student’s vaccination history and the vaccination record of each student enrolled conditionally must be reviewed regularly to ensure they receive their immunizations by the required time. Those who fail to receive their immunizations by the designated date will be prohibited from attending school. It is important to note that the CDPH directs that, “students who have an individualized education program may continue to receive all necessary services identified in their IEP regardless of their immunization status.”
The CDPH’s Shots for School webpage provides information on immunization laws and required vaccinations for students in California. The #DontWaitVaccinate toolkit can be used to educate Californians about the importance of staying up to date on vaccination and routine screenings.