More Than 900 Pr. George's Students Lack Vaccines

By Nelson Hernandez
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, May 29, 2008

After Prince George's County schools opened in August, more than 2,600 students were banned from class because they lacked vaccinations for chickenpox and hepatitis B. As the academic year nears its close, more than 900 remain barred, a school system spokesman said yesterday.

Letters, phone calls, home visits and even threats of jail time never entirely solved a public health problem that drew wide publicity in the fall. Health administrators say the vaccination requirement will prevent the outbreak of disease among students. But officials have found it difficult to get certain students, including some who are chronically truant, to a health clinic for the required shots.

As of Friday, 938 of about 131,000 Prince George's students had not met the requirement, according to schools spokesman John White. Of those, 680 are high school students.

For several years, Maryland has been phasing in the requirement for the two vaccines. The state accelerated that shift in January of last year, adding grades six through nine to the requirement. As of now, the requirements cover students through 10th grade. In two years, all grades will be included.

In November, reacting to what school board member R. Owen Johnson Jr. (District 5) called "an educational crisis," State's Attorney Glenn F. Ivey (D) threatened the parents of noncompliant students with fines of $50 a day and up to 10 days in jail.

Although the number of students out of school has fallen, it has hovered stubbornly around 1,000 for most of the school year.

"We made some real progress considering how high the numbers were," White said. "What is 1,000 out of 131,000? It's less than 1 percent, isn't it?" But White acknowledged: "It's still a lot of kids, and we need to encourage parents to take care of that for public health reasons."

Statewide, Prince George's and Baltimore had the largest number of students barred from class this school year. A Baltimore schools official, Tom DeWire, said yesterday that the city had 429 noncompliant students.

Prince George's authorities have sought to make it easy to get the vaccines, offering free health clinics for those who need the shots. Greg Reed, program manager for the Maryland Center for Immunization, said the Prince George's school system and health department had "done an amazing job" of providing parents chances to get the shots for their children.

"Saturday clinics, early morning clinics, clinics in schools -- you name it, they've done it," Reed said. But reaching the remaining families who are out of compliance has been difficult, he and White said.

"What we've heard from some of the school systems is that many of these students who are not getting vaccinated could be classified as chronically truant students who don't attend class," regardless of vaccination policies, Reed said.

Prince George's school officials have sent out a blizzard of letters, made telephone calls and visited the homes of students out of compliance. Their efforts have been impeded by inaccurate phone and address information.

Even when the school system reaches a family, things can go wrong. Some students don't show up for appointments; others get the vaccines, allowing them to return to school, but fall out of compliance when they don't get follow-up shots.

White said it was possible that some noncompliant students are "habitually truant," which the state defines as missing more than 20 percent of school days. Prince George's also has a large population of immigrants who might not readily understand the requirement.

"Is language a barrier? Well, it's certainly always a barrier that we try to navigate," White said. "Could it be children who miss school regularly? I think it probably could be, given that this is an issue where we are counting on parental participation and involvement."

Regardless, Reed said the state would press on with the policy because of its beneficial effects on public health.

"No one likes to see a child not attend school," Reed said. "However, we do have to make sure we are in compliance with the regulations."

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