D.C. officials yesterday pledged to work with rather than “punish” the parents of just over 500 children who had yet to be vaccinated against preventable diseases.
“The goal is to get the children immunized, not punish them,” said District 3 board member Tommy Wells.
Children lacking required immunizations had been barred from attending school since Jan. 25 and were to be declared truant as of yesterday when a 10-day grace period expired. Under city law, parents could be fined up to $100 and sentenced to five days in jail.
But school officials say the reduction in the number of unvaccinated students from 41,000 to just over 500 in 14 months indicates something is seriously “wrong” with the stragglers, who tend to be older students with histories of truancy and other problems.
“There is some kind of distress happening in those families,” said Steve Seleznow, the school system’s chief of staff. “Our aim is to find out what is happening and intervene with the services necessary.”
He said the “interventions” would begin this week with elementary school students and would take about a week. After that, the children still not immunized could be considered “neglected” and the appropriate authorities will be notified.
“If [the parents] fail to act, then clearly the behavior will be considered neglectful, and we can take action,” he said. “But right now, we are trying to provide help, not punishment. We plan to stay with each child until they are immunized.”
The school district decided in November to enforce its immunization policy after the board learned that 44 percent of the District’s 68,000 public school children were not fully immunized three months into the school year. D.C. law requires students to produce immunization records within 10 days of the start of school.
Those include shots for DPT (diphtheria/pertussis/tetanus), OPV (oral polio vaccine), MMR (measles/mumps/rubella), HIB (hemophilus influenza type B), HepB (hepatitis B) and varicella immunizations if they have not had chickenpox.
In December, the D.C. public schools and the D.C. Department of Health waged an all-out educational campaign, distributing handbills on the streets and airing public-service announcements on television and radio, to alert parents about the importance of immunizations and the deadline.
As a result, thousands of students were immunized at more than 20 locations throughout the District in December and January. The clinics were running nonstop for weeks in an effort to meet the Jan. 25 deadline that the school board imposed.
The board then instituted a 10-day grace period for the more than 6,000 students still without shots, sending them home with 10 days worth of homework and one last warning. The grace period expired yesterday.
Parents said they generally supported school officials in their efforts to get children immunized, but added that keeping children home would only hamper learning efforts.
“It was stupid to have children lose school time, especially because no one initially informed me that my child didn’t have his vaccines,” said Kendall Smith, who was waiting for her son, David, 16, to get his shots yesterday at Spring Road Clinic in Northwest.
“The school just called out of blue and told me he couldn’t stay. And they certainly didn’t send any schoolwork home with him.”