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Engaging Parents on Student Health Amid Dropping Immunization Rates

There’s nothing more serious to parents than the health of their children.

In recent years, a growing number of parents throughout the country have questioned whether child vaccines do more to harm their children than to protect them. Many parents are now choosing to forgo vaccinating their children altogether.

Several doctors and major medical organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, contend this growing rejection of immunizations could open the door to a resurgence of forgotten (in this country) childhood diseases, such as measles and mumps. Parents who reject vaccines fear adverse medical reactions and developmental disorders, such as Autism, though scientists have all but debunked that connection.

As the number of parents choosing to opt-out of immunizations grows, school districts are responding by tightening rules around admitting students who have not been vaccinated.

In Vermont, school leaders continue to wrestle with the need to respect parents’ rights and ensure student safety, as explained in a recent PBS News Hour and Education Week report.

Medical experts say that schools must maintain a 90 percent to 95 percent vaccination rate to ensure that students who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons, or who are more vulnerable to disease, are protected, PBS reports.

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As Christine Finley, head of the immunization program for the Vermont Department of Health, tells the News Hour:

“When children are in school they are in a setting where they’re interacting broadly with one another. If you don’t have a large percentage of the children vaccinated, then basically your shield isn’t going to work, because you’ve got places where a disease can begin to spread within a school.”

That’s why Finley and other health officials were alarmed to find that by 2014 nearly 20 percent of students in the state had not been fully vaccinated.

While every student is required to be fully vaccinated to attend school in Vermont, certain exemptions make it possible for parents to opt out of those requirements. As the rate of vaccinated students drops, Vermont, like other states, is looking to tighten its exemption process. In 2015, the state eliminated a personal/philosophical exemption.

Parent Ariel Brewer Louis uses a religious exemption to send her child to a public pre-k program without being vaccinated. “I don’t have a religious objection to vaccines,” she tells the News Hour, “but that’s my only option. And, the way I see it, I have done my research and there is no way that I’m going to vaccinate my children to send them to school.”

As state laws promoting immunizations continue to tighten, some parents have suggested sending their children to private schools or home schools instead of immunizing.

As school districts weigh the need for student health with parents’ rights, it’s important to communicate policy changes and to seek feedback ahead of potentially controversial health and wellness decisions.

For more on the immunization debate, check out the full video report below.

Has your school or district experienced controversy regarding its vaccination policy? What steps are you taking to engage parents in conversations about student health? Tell us in the comments.