Deadline Past, Thousands of Students Still Unvaccinated

By Daniel de Vise and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Families lined up at clinics in Prince George's County and Baltimore yesterday after their children were turned away from public schools for failing to get new vaccinations required by state law.

At least 3,851 students remained barred from schools in Prince George's yesterday, the second day they have been forbidden to attend classes without up-to-date-shots, said schools spokesman John White. Monday was the end of the grace period after a Jan. 2 deadline for students in grades 6 through 9 to be immunized against chickenpox and hepatitis B in Maryland. In Baltimore, 4,788 students remained barred from school, said spokeswoman Vanessa C. Pyatt.

Parents and school officials disagreed sharply on whether enough had been done to get the word out.

About a dozen families trickled into the Cheverly office of the Prince George's Health Department last night to have their children immunized. All the parents said the school system had failed to notify them that their children needed to be vaccinated.

"We were not aware of this," said Kay Young, who brought her daughter Mary, 14, a student at Suitland High School, to the clinic. "We should have known about this back in August."

School officials in Prince George's, Baltimore and elsewhere in the state said they had orchestrated a blitz of letters, warnings and public service announcements about the requirement, an effort that left some of them frustrated.

"It can't even be pinned on communication because we made appointments for all the kids that were not in compliance," White said. "It became a question of not keeping appointments."

In Baltimore, Pyatt said, "the communications process has been under way for about 10 months now and includes everything from public service announcements, radio and TV ads, phone calls to the residences of the kids, letters going home, postcards going home, notices on buses. It would be very, very difficult for me to believe that any parent of any child who still today does not have their shots did not know that this was coming."

Other counties reported stragglers, although not as many as in Baltimore and Prince George's.

In Howard County, 247 students remained excluded from class yesterday, said school health services coordinator Donna Heller. Parents were called and told that their children would not be allowed in school without their shots.

"I got a call," said Robert Cowan, a father of four from Sykesville. "I came and got them." By mid-morning yesterday, Cowan, a recent transplant from Kentucky, was busily filling out forms at a special clinic set up in Clarksville.

Prince George's health officials offered free shots Saturdays and weekday evenings from Jan. 8 through Jan. 19 at four health centers. The evening hours continued through this week, White said, and at least 350 students got their shots Monday.

Sam Dolberry, at the Cheverly clinic yesterday with a friend's 13-year-old daughter, recounted bitterly that the first letter the household received from the school system arrived Jan. 10. "Why did it take so long for them to notify us?" she asked.

Prince George's teachers were working with parents to get schoolwork home to students barred from classes, White said.

Three Baltimore health clinics have also offered free vaccinations daily. A mobile immunization van and school health clinics have chipped in, too. Nine hundred students were immunized Saturday, and "every clinic was packed" this week, Pyatt said.

Staff writer Mary Otto contributed to this report.

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