Students excluded from school; religious exemptions rise after new MMR vaccine law

The new law that got rid of personal and philosophical exemptions for the MMR vaccine is in full swing, but students all over the state are still out of compliance.

Now some unvaccinated students are being forced to stay home, while other parents have found a new way to keep their kids from getting vaccinated.

Two measles outbreaks, first in Clark County, then King County and beyond, sent Washington into a state of emergency.

A total of 86 people got sick -- most of them, not vaccinated.

It spurred the state Legislature to change the law, getting rid of the personal exemption for the measles, mumps and rubella, or MMR, vaccine.

The law went into effect July 28 and the Washington State Department of Health said immunizations were due on the first day of school. Families with kids that weren't up to speed had 30 days figure it out.

"If you don't have that turned in by the end of your conditional period, then you can be excluded from school or child care," said Danielle Koenig, the health promotions supervisor with the DOH.

But KIRO 7 checked with more than 20 school districts, and found they varied widely when it comes to following the new law.

In the Tacoma School District, 161 students still didn't have the vaccine or a legal exemption as of Oct. 9 and the district had already started excluding some students from class.

The Issaquah School District, like some others, said it has started sending warning letters home.

"If we have to exclude students, which we will if we have to, the method with that is we do send a hand-certified letter home," said L Michelle, a spokesperson with the Issaquah School District.

Districts like Seattle won't start excluding students until January. It was missing immunization information from 7,000 students at the beginning of the school year and is still working to figure out who is out of compliance.

Seattle Public Schools said it plans to send out preexclusion letters Nov 1.

KIRO7's Deedee Sun asked the DOH about all the inconsistencies.

"Does that mean they're technically violating the law?" Sun asked.

"We know schools have a lot of pressures on them, with a lot of competing things they have to deal with. So we understand they may be in time crunches. According to state law, the conditional period is 30 days from the first day of attendance," Koenig said.

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KIRO 7 also found out some families are turning to other options to opt out of the MMR vaccine.

A look at the new form for personal and religious vaccine exemptions shows now you can only opt out of the MMR vaccine by checking the "religious exemption" box.

"We actually did find we had quite an increase in the number of religious exemptions -- about four times what we did last year," Michele said.

"Would you look at that as a loophole?" Sun asked.

"I think the state has made its decision about what the law will be, and we're just simply following the law," Michelle said.

It has parents wondering the same thing.

"People love a loophole," said Ellyn Nguyen, a Tumwater mom. "I don't want people to abuse that," she said.

The DOH says the state does not require providers or schools verify the student's religion, but does still require a physician's signature.

"There is a conversation with the provider that has to happen," Koenig said. "That signature shows the provider discussed the risks and benefits of not vaccinating the family," she said.

But the uptick in religious exemptions has some parents saying Washington should follow California and get rid of the religious exemption too.

"Would you be OK with that?" Sun asked an elementary school student's parent.

"I would. Because the science shows vaccines are safe. So other than that - the people who can't get vaccines shouldn't have to and they should be protected by the herd immunity," Nguyen said.

The DOH says over the past few years it has seen more students opting out.

A KIRO7 investigation from March found hot spots at public schools across the state, including 40 percent of students choosing to be exempt from the MMR vaccine at Skagit Academy in Mount Vernon.

The DOH says it's waiting on data from school districts to gauge the impact of the new law.

"We would hope that more and more students and families are protecting themselves against serious diseases. We always hope to see our vaccination rates go up," Koenig said.

As for who makes sure school districts are following the new law, the new immunization manual says "administrators in these facilities have final responsibility" when it comes to compliance. But there's no penalty spelled out if the school doesn't comply.