No immunity

January 25, 2007

It's a tough call, but the decision by school systems around the state to exclude students who have not been vaccinated against chicken pox and hepatitis B is the right one. The diseases can pose serious health threats, and the more students who are immunized against them, the better. Forcing noncompliant students to miss a few days of school may be worth it in order to save even more students from harm. But there is a point - no more than a week - where keeping kids out of school is counterproductive.

Maryland's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene had been gradually requiring proof of immunization against these diseases for students beyond kindergarten. But the department sped up the process in 2005 at the urging of the General Assembly, adding grades 6 to 9 all at once, affecting about 280,000 students.

Some school districts started notifying parents a year ago, but when more than 50,000 students still had not been immunized by the recent Jan. 1 deadline, it was extended to Jan. 22. On Monday, there were still about 8,000 students statewide - about half in Baltimore - who were not immunized. If they showed up for school, they were not permitted to enter.

That's the harsh price of noncompliance. The city's Health Department and school system - like their counterparts throughout the state - have waged an increasingly aggressive campaign, giving vaccinations at in-school, Health Department and mobile clinics. They have also reminded parents and guardians through radio and billboard advertisements, letters, post cards, one-on-one meetings and phone calls. Some parents who were scrambling to comply with the new requirement this week admitted that they had procrastinated or perhaps didn't understand the consequences.

Baltimore school officials have determined that most of the city's noncompliant students are in traditional middle schools and neighborhood high schools, and they are trying to pinpoint specific problem schools and students who might be chronic truants. By next week, they might try to put noncompliant students in alternative learning centers or threaten legal action against parents.

A relentless push for compliance is justified. Schools are preparing for state assessment tests that will be given in March, and all students need to be in class. It's past time that students and parents took the immunization requirement seriously.

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