Students in local school districts are meeting state vaccine deadlines, thanks largely to school nurses. All but a few students in Panther Valley, Palmerton, Weatherly, and Jim Thorpe districts have met the vaccination regulations, and school officials are confident those students will get their shots.
The state announced last August that students must be up-to-date with all of their vaccinations, and set a deadline of eight months, with the final dates depending upon when the school districts started classes. However, on April 27, the state gave districts a two-week grace period. For most districts, that brought the deadline to May 14.
The rules require that each student receive a second dose each of mumps and chicken pox vaccines. They require seventh-grade students to have one dose each of meningococcal conjugate, tetanus, diphtheria and acellular pertussis vaccines.
All the inoculations must be appropriately spaced to be considered valid. Students who fail to comply with the new inoculation rules could be turned away from classes.
The state does provide a religious exemption: Children need not be immunized if the parent, guardian or emancipated child objects in writing to the immunization on religious grounds or on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief.
Exemptions are allowed by law for medical reasons verified by a health care professional, on religious grounds, or on the basis of a strong moral or ethical conviction similar to a religious belief. However, the student must fill out a statement for exemption and provide it to his or her school.
The regulations were developed upon recommendations from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, according to the state Department of Health.
Several local school superintendents praised the work of nurses and secretaries in getting the word out and nudging parents to comply.
"We are 100 percent in compliance, due to the very hard work of our school nurses," said Palmerton Superintendent Carol Boyce. "We started with approximately 175 out of compliance, but with multiple letters to parents, telephone alerts, and individual phone calls, our students are now all in compliance with the latest information from the state."
Jim Thorpe Superintendent Barbara Conway said her district has had a similar experience.
"We currently only have between seven and eight students still without immunizations, but they do have appointments scheduled," she said.
Jim Thorpe Area School District started classes a few days earlier than other districts, so its deadline originally would have been April 30.
"We had well over 400 students without immunizations," Conway said. "Our nurses did a superb job of notifying families and keeping up with them."
She said the state Department of Health was "very clear" that students who failed to comply should be excluded from classes.
Then, on Friday afternoon, April 27, the school district received a directive from the Department of Education that they were extending the deadline by two weeks, and that the district was not to exclude students. That meant a flurry of phone calls to alert parents of the new development.
"The school district had to call families Friday afternoon, literally as the bells were ringing ... we should have been notified earlier," Conway said. "The nurses and school secretaries did a wonderful job. The nurses took some criticism (from parents), but it was not their regulation."
She said the school district sent home notices at the end of the 2010-11 school year, and performed an "all-call" in August, about the need for vaccinations, "but people forget."
Panther Valley Superintendent Rosemary Porembo said only eight students have yet to comply.
"We started with eight month provisional enrollment for 40 students at the high school, 68 at the middle school and 168 at the elementary school. I am so proud of the job the nurses did to continuously contact parents, set up state health clinic information for parents and to help parents with their child's immunization records as they made doctor appointments. We are down to three at the high school, two at the middle school and three at the elementary level. The nurses did an outstanding job to monitor this state mandate. They provided all parents enough information to educate them about the immunizations that are needed," she said.
Porembo said the unvaccinated students at the middle and high schools attend Panther Valley's "Virtual Academy, not on campus, so they will be given until June 30 to complete their immunizations, but they cannot participate in any extra-curricular or sporting activities. If they do not comply by June 30, 2012, they will not be allowed to re-enroll for the 2012-2013 school term at our virtual school. The elementary children are excluded."
In the Weatherly Area School District, Superintendent Tom McLaughlin said "We are in full compliance. No students are excluded from attending school."
Carbon Career and Technical Institute Principal Brent Borzak said all of the school's students are up-to-date on their vaccines.
Tamaqua Area School District Superintendent Carol Makuta said that "when the eight-month period (from last August) was concluding, our nurses were already working on getting students immunized."
Part of the problem, Makuta said, was that although the students had actually gotten the immunizations, they had not submitted the paperwork to prove they had complied.
By May 14, the end of the two-week extension, there were only eight students in the district who had not been immunized. They either had appointments scheduled, or did not know where to go for the shots. School district nurses directed those who lacked family physicians to a clinic in Pottsville.
"The school nurses are the reason for our success," Makuta said. "They worked all year long on compliance. We did a phone call and letter campaign. We contacted all the parents."
The Lehighton Area School District, which started the academic year with 888 unvaccinated students, had, via repeated notices and phone calls, whittled that number down to three as of April 27. That number dropped to zero by the end of the deadline, said certified school nurse Abbie Guardiani.
"We were very, very pleased to be at zero," she said.