Measles outbreaks across the United States in 2019 have already broken a 25-year record for the most cases in a year. Schools are at the center of the crisis, both as places where children gather every day and as the public institutions with sway over whether students are vaccinated.
That gives state and local school officials important roles in addressing the outbreaks. As legislatures debate more than 170 vaccine-related bills across the country, valuable strategies are emerging from education officials on how to protect students’ health and education.
Currently, 17 states allow parents to exempt their children from shots for personal or philosophical reasons. Eliminating those exemptions can lead to higher vaccination rates and minimize outbreaks. A year after California stopped exempting students because of their parents’ religious or philosophical beliefs, the median rate of non-medical exemptions among kindergartners was 0.6 percent. That’s down from 9 percent in charter schools, 5 percent in private schools and 2 percent in traditional public schools in the previous year.
Drawing on this evidence, lawmakers in Washington state, which experienced a virulent outbreak earlier this year, have sent the governor a bill eliminating philosophical exemptions for the measles vaccination. An Oregon measure eliminating all non-medical exemptions cleared a House committee. The Maine House voted to remove religious and philosophical reasons, and a New Jersey committee advanced a bill eliminating the religious opt-out.
At the same time, use of the religious exemption, which is offered in 47 states, is growing in many places. In Florida, for instance, the number of children exempted for religious reasons doubled from 12,200 to nearly 25,000 from 2013 to 2018. In 2018 alone, the state granted 5,300 of these exemptions, The Orlando Sentinel reported.
In an effort to give families information that they can use to protect themselves, Florida created an interactive map that allows families to see the rate of children receiving religious exemptions in every Census tract and school. Florida lawmakers are also advancing a bill that would expand vaccination tracking, an approach other states are pursuing as well. Arkansas’ bill has already become law. The Nevada House passed a measure that improves tracking of exemptions, and Texas lawmakers are considering a bill that would give parents better access to information on how many students in their children’s schools are exempt.
State and local education officials can make important contributions to policy conversations by pointing out how disease outbreaks affect schools and students. When nearly 800 unvaccinated students in southern Washington waited out the three-week measles incubation period at home, they crossed an attendance threshold that put them at academic risk. And the wholesale absences slowed instruction for the rest of the students in their classes as well.
School officials can also provide families with accurate information about the value of vaccinations. In response to an increasingly sophisticated anti-vaccination campaign, the Georgia education and public health departments collaborated to create handouts on the science supporting vaccinations that schools can give parents.
Addressing the measles outbreak is ultimately about educating people. And policymakers can help.