Schools lose money in wake of pertussis vaccine problems

Cash-strapped school districts may not have any recourse but to absorb what could add up to millions in lost revenue caused by the absence of thousands of students who were sent home from school last week for not having proper vaccinations – but that could change, state officials said Friday.

A clause in the state education code that allows districts to collect attendance money if large numbers of students are absent because of a statewide emergency does not apply in this case, said California Department of Education’s Erin Gabel.

“This is not an illness epidemic…it’s a vaccination requirement,” said Gabel, the CDE’s Director of Legislative Affairs and Fiscal Policy.

Still, Gabel said, the situation has prompted an “internal dialogue” in her office about possible options for districts that have been severely impacted by large numbers of absences.

Despite an almost year-long campaign by CDE to get the word out that students in the 7th through 12th grades would not be allowed to start school without a vaccine for pertussis, or whooping cough, some districts across the state faced huge numbers of non-compliance even after legislation was adopted granting a 30-day extension

That deadline came last week for many districts and caused a flurry of news reports up and down the state as thousands of students were reportedly sent home for not having received the booster shot or bringing in a signed waiver exempting them from the requirement.

Elk Grove Unified School District, the largest in the Sacramento region, notified 200 students on Sept. 14 that they would not be allowed in class unless they produced the required paperwork, district spokeswoman Elizabeth Graswich said. The next day, 140 kids were still without proof of the vaccination.

She said her district loses about $30 per day (the statewide average) for every student not in attendance. In Elk Grove’s case, the district would lose $6,000 a day if 200 students were missing from class.

Similar scenarios were playing out in districts across the state, with various media reporting significant numbers of affected student populations. San Francisco Unified on Thursday reportedly barred some 2,000 students from the classroom for not having been vaccinated. The San Diego Unified School District reported that 21,000 of its 60,000 7th-12th grade students had no proof of immunization.

With attendance figures not due to the CDE until later this year, Gable said her office was working to understand the full extent of the problem and determine what the best solutions would be.

“It’s a delicate balance of achieving the original intent of the law, which is to have students properly immunized and protected, with the realities of implementing the law,” she said.

The state law mandating the Tdap (tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis) vaccine went into effect July 1 and was precipitated by a 2009 epidemic of pertussis, which killed 10 infants.

State health officials say the threat from the disease remains significant. Through the middle of August, 2,164 cases of whooping cough had been reported so far this year.

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