Most California kids will kick off the 2020-2021 academic year with distance learning due to the coronavirus, but the state’s strict vaccination laws still require students be up-to-date on their shots before starting class.

The California Legislature in recent years has passed some of the tightest vaccine mandates in the country to increase the immunization rates in schools. In 2015, lawmakers approved Senate Bill 277 to exclude personal beliefs from the list of reasons parents can skip vaccinating their children.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed follow-up measure Senate Bill 276 to increase oversight of doctors who issue five or more medical exemptions in a single year after clusters of unvaccinated children in certain schools were tied to a handful of physicians.

Before students are granted admission, schools are required to review incoming childcare, transitional kindergarten, kindergarten and 7th grade vaccine records.

Despite the pandemic forcing California kids behind a screen at home for at least the start of the year, state Sen. Richard Pan, the Sacramento Democrat who wrote both vaccine laws, said the regulations still stand. The Department of Public Health also confirmed that immunization requirements for school haven’t changed.

“In order to enroll in school, the law is pretty clear,” Pan said. “Otherwise you’re not enrolled, and that’s that.”

Immunization rates have plunged since March, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, when states began adopting stay-at-home orders to slow the spread of COVID-19. In California, the number of vaccines given to kids decreased by more than 40% between April 2019 and April 2020, according to the state’s Department of Public Health.

Alarmed by the dramatic drop, health officials have urged families to take their children to the doctor for routine vaccine appointments.

“This pandemic has disrupted so much, including how we’re seeking preventive health care services,” Department of Public Health Director Dr. Sonia Angell said in May. “During and after the pandemic, unvaccinated infants and children will be more vulnerable to dangerous diseases like measles and whooping cough. It’s so important that parents make sure their children are up-to-date on their immunizations.”

The American Academy of Pediatrics released sanitation guidelines for providers to adopt so parents and families feel more comfortable bringing children into a health care setting during the pandemic.

Public health officials are also encouraging the flu vaccine to avoid overcrowding hospitals already flooded with COVID-19 patients.

From January to April of this year, the national flu vaccination rate for children dropped by an estimated 21.5%, according to the insurance data site QuoteWizard. California is ranked in the middle of the pack with a 57.3% rate.

Pan, who is also a pediatrician, introduced the California vaccine laws amid a surge in measles cases in the state. He said the coronavirus should remind families how important vaccines are to keep children healthy, and underscored the importance of immunizations in the era of COVID-19.

“I hope parents seeing COVID understand how important it is to vaccinate their kids. COVID’s bad enough as it is,” Pan said. “We don’t need diseases on top of that.”


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