6,000 in Md. Suburbs Barred From Class

By Susan Levine
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 3, 2007

Despite a "Herculean effort" to get the word out, more than 6,000 students in Washington's Maryland suburbs were excluded from class yesterday because they failed to comply with a state vaccination requirement that took effect with the new year.

Students in grades 6 through 9 who had not provided a record of chickenpox and hepatitis B vaccinations -- or, in the case of chickenpox, month-and-year documentation of when they had the disease -- were told they could not return until they had the necessary paperwork in hand. The only exceptions were to be those who arrived with proof that they have appointments to get the shots by Jan. 22.

Some students were held for the day in special rooms or centers in their schools. Others were sent home.

According to a preliminary count in Prince George's County, more than 4,000 students were without the vaccine records. Spokesman John White said administrators were discouraged by the lack of response from so many parents despite repeated outreach and opportunities for free immunizations.

"With there not being a monetary barrier, it's just frustrating," he said.

Statewide, students were given specific notes -- "letters of suspension" in at least one county -- that administrators hope will get families' attention in a way that months of announcements, calls, visits and admonitions from principals have not.

"We've had quite a challenging day," said Helen Monk, the health specialist in the Frederick County schools, where 327 children remained out of compliance. Although that figure was down by more than half the total just before the holiday break, she sounded incredulous that anyone still needed vaccinations.

"It's been a Herculean effort," Monk said. "You wouldn't believe the time and work that have gone into this."

The numbers, which local school and health staff members spent frenetic hours amassing yesterday, ranged from the low hundreds in some counties to nearly 1,000 or more in other jurisdictions. State officials were not tallying either the overall public count or that of private and parochial students.

In St. Mary's County, 381 students had not met the requirement; in Anne Arundel County, 993.

"It's so crucial for these students to be in school," said Kathleen Lyon, executive director of student services in St. Mary's. "They're ending the first semester and preparing for exams."

Montgomery County cut its total by nearly 90 percent from mid-December, to about 500 students, who took home another warning letter from principals yesterday after they were barred from class.

"It is of utmost importance that we receive the required documentation as soon as possible to ensure that your child's instructional program will not be further interrupted," the letter concluded.

Hours later, schools spokesman Brian Edwards reiterated that message. "Parents have got to get these situations resolved with their students and get these students back in school," he said. "Every day missed is a problem for them."

Some jurisdictions are taking a lenient approach, viewing the weeks until Jan. 22 as a grace period that allows flexibility. More than 1,600 Howard County students hadn't supplied verification as of mid-December, the last count available, but as officials called homes again yesterday, no one was kept from class.

"We're assisting them to make appointments," said Donna Heller, coordinator for Howard's school health services. With the health department, the school system has a free clinic scheduled tomorrow.

Chickenpox and hepatitis B were added to the state's vaccination schedule for older students because of their potential risks and complications. The District includes both for every grade. Virginia mandates hepatitis B immunization for all students and chickenpox shots for those born after Jan. 1, 1997.

States usually set the start of school as the deadline for vaccinations, but Maryland delayed its date from the fall because of concerns that so many children would fall short of the expanded requirement. By September 2009, all grades will need to be immunized against the two infectious diseases to begin school.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company