California public health officials were cheered by data released last week showing that the percentage of fully immunized kindergartners statewide had risen to nearly 96 percent in the current school year. But the picture is not entirely clear in Los Angeles County, where about three out of 10 private schools failed to report their vaccination data, and in Riverside County, where nearly one in four private schools did not report.
Schools are required to furnish this information to the California Department of Public Health. The state can audit public schools that fail to do so, and it can threaten to withhold funding if they don't eventually comply with the reporting requirement. But it can't audit private schools over a failure to report and it can't impose financial penalties on them, since those institutions don't receive public funds.
The only consequence non-reporting private schools might face is "site visits by local public health departments," said Public Health spokesman Jorge De La Cruz.
In California, private schools tend to have lower vaccination rates than public schools. This school year, 91.6 percent of kindergartners in private schools were fully immunized statewide, compared with 95.9 percent of public school kindergartners. (The data released last week only showed vaccination rates by county; the state will release the rates for each school at a later date.)
The 2016-17 school year is the first covered by the new state law that requires nearly all California children entering day care, nursery school, kindergarten and 7th grade to be fully immunized. Only those with medical exemptions or who are enrolled in home schools or qualified independent study programs are excused.
Backers of the law were pleased to see the statewide percentage of fully vaccinated kids rise from nearly 93 percent in the 2015-16 school year to nearly 96 percent in the current academic year.
But that figure doesn't include the schools that didn't report their data, the vast majority of which were private.
Of the 446 schools statewide failing to furnish vaccination information for 2016-17, 362 - more than 80 percent - were private, even though private institutions only made up 27 percent of all schools.
In L.A. County, 487 of 685 private schools, or 71 percent, sent their vaccination data to the state this school year. That's down significantly from the 2015-16 school year, when 80 percent of private schools reported (549 of 683).
In Riverside County, 78 of 100 private schools, or 78 percent, reported the data this school year. During the 2015-2016 school year, 100 percent of the county's 113 private schools provided their immunization statistics.
The percentage of non-reporting private schools in L.A. and Riverside counties "is of concern," said Shannan Martinez, spokeswoman for State Sen. Richard Pan (D-Sacramento), who co-authored the vaccination law. But she added that "the actual number of non-reporting schools is not high."
There are several reasons why private schools might not report their immunization data to the state, said Catherine Flores-Martin, director of the California Immunization Coalition.
"We see this as an opportunity … to figure out why those private schools are not reporting, whether it's a resource issue, an awareness issue, or an issue of, 'We don't care, we're not going to do it,'" she said.
If private schools are deliberately ignoring the law’s requirements, "it's hard to imagine … being able to create a consequence or penalty" for those institutions, said Flores-Martin.
Some counties had high rates of reporting from their private schools. Every one of Orange County's 212 private schools, all but one of San Bernardino County's 80 private schools and 91 percent (57 of 63) of Ventura County's private schools reported their vaccination data for the 2016-17 school year.
Public health says it will release data on immunization rates for children entering day care and 7th grade later this spring.