Pr. George's Hopes Mass Vaccinations Will Pay Off
Monday, August 20, 2007
With classes starting today, Prince George's County is conducting a massive effort to ensure that older students have the proper vaccinations, hoping to avoid a repeat of last winter's immunization debacle that left hundreds of students unable to attend school.
Health officials have run about 45 immunization clinics since June, every weekday and one night a week. But they won't know until students arrive today how many have met the state mandate requiring students in grades six through 10 to receive shots for chickenpox and hepatitis B. Those without proper vaccinations will have 20 days to comply.
"It certainly is a big concern because at the end of last year there were about 1,000 kids out of compliance," said John White, spokesman for the Prince George's school system. Although that is less than 1 percent of the county's schoolchildren, "it still is a big number, and kids cannot attend class if their immunization records are not up to date," he said.
With the start of the school year also comes a slew of new educational initiatives for the school system. This year, every high school will have at least eight core Advanced Placement classes. Nine middle schools have added a program to aid students in the "academic middle." Eleven others added programs to help improve literacy, math and pre-algebra skills. Five schools are applying to join the International Baccalaureate Middle Year program, in which students study eight subject groups in hopes that they make smooth transitions into the IB high school programs, school officials said.
"Every middle school will have a new program designed to accelerate student achievement, and every middle school will adopt all three new programs in coming years," White wrote in an e-mail.
The county will start the year lacking 165 teachers in its 207 schools. Those vacancies, which do not affect a majority of the county's schools, will be filled with substitutes who have college degrees.
The first week of school will also be a time for county school and health officials to gauge the number of students still in need of shots and "see if there are places to offer immunizations at schools during the first week, because it's highly probable that some children will not be immunized," White said.
In January, Baltimore and Prince George's accounted for the largest number of students who failed to comply with the new rules. At least 6,000 students were in the Maryland suburbs.
Prince George's school officials attempted various outreach efforts to inform parents that their children needed vaccines, including sending letters, calling homes and placing ads on radio and television. Still, there were students who did not respond. Officials sent workers on home visits in the spring for those who had still not complied and even bused students to clinics to get their shots, White said.
Many students who failed to get their vaccinations last year were chronically truant, primarily ninth-graders close to the dropout age, said Greg Reed, program manager for the Maryland Center for Immunization under the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene.
"When you dug a little deeper to see who are these kids, these were kids who were classified as chronic truancy kids anyway," he said. "These are kids who were not in school, who were not going to school on any kind of regular basis."
The number of children who were not up to date fluctuated throughout the school year as some students neglected to receive the follow-up shots.
There is less concern that other Washington area school systems will have problems getting a majority of their students vaccinated, Reed said.
"We are hoping that the number is going to be extremely small, primarily students who are transferring in from another state or another country," he said. Students across the state can attend class if they provide evidence that they will get immunized within the first 20 days of school.
"The school system will work with you" to make sure no one misses any classes, he said.
Anne Arundel County health officials said they expected all students to be in compliance. Frederick County school officials said they knew of only nine students excluded for noncompliance as of March 27, the last time the information was collected centrally.
St. Mary's County school officials said they knew of eight students who didn't comply with vaccine requirements during the past academic year and will continue to be excluded the first day. They also cited about 140 10th-graders who lack proof of immunizations. Letters have been sent home and school nurses are calling families to remind them.
Judith Covich, director of school health services for the Montgomery County Health Department, said all students who attended school last year came into compliance. If any of the new students or those repeating 10th grade have scheduled a shot within 20 days of enrollment, they may attend school.
"This will pretty much be a normal year, with the exception of the need to follow up repeat 10th-graders," she said.