California schools turn away unvaccinated students

A bottle of the pertussis vaccine against whooping cough and a syringe are shown in a pharmacy in Pasadena.
A bottle of the pertussis vaccine against whooping cough and a syringe are shown in a pharmacy in Pasadena.
Robyn Beck/AFP/Getty Images

California schools are turning away middle and high school students who have not received the whooping cough vaccine as required under a law passed last year after a historic spike in cases of the potentially fatal disease.

The law passed in October initially required all students entering grades seven through 12 to get vaccinated by the start of the 2011-2012 school year. Lawmakers passed a 30-day extension this summer as districts worried many students wouldn't meet the deadline.

Under California law, students also can still attend if their parents file a form saying they oppose vaccines.

No statewide estimates of the number of students turned away is available because districts are not required to report their final vaccination tally until December, state education officials said.

But anecdotal reports from individual districts indicate the percentage of students meeting the requirement varied widely.

"We've done a tremendous amount of outreach with the schools trying to let them know," said Linda Davis-Alldritt, the school nurse consultant for the education department.

Davis-Alldritt said she had heard from districts reporting anywhere from half to nearly all students getting the vaccination.

On Thursday, San Francisco Unified School District began sending home students who arrived without proof of vaccination or a parental personal belief exemption.

District spokeswoman Heidi Anderson said the district estimates about 2,000 students, or 10 percent of the student body, are still unvaccinated. The district held a free vaccination clinic at its offices Thursday and was providing shots at individual schools on Friday.

District officials were optimistic that most students would be able to return to class soon.

"We're getting down to it," Anderson said.

The Sacramento Bee reported Friday that some Northern California districts were defying the law by allowing unvaccinated students to come to school. Schools in California lose money for each absence.

"We will not withhold education from our students," Folsom Cordova Superintendent Debbie Bettencourt said.

At the Natomas Unified School District, Interim Superintendent Walt Hanline told the newspaper that about 1,000 students had not complied. Instead of being sent home, those students were receiving separate instruction in the gym.

State education officials said allowing unvaccinated students on school premises at all broke state law, but that the education department had no power to sanction defiant districts.

Allowing unvaccinated students to come to school put the students themselves and others exempted from the vaccine for medical or personal reasons at risk, Davis-Alldritt said.

"The legislation is pretty clear they have to be excluded. And excluding doesn't mean housing them in the gym ," she said.