School regulations changed in response to measles outbreak

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COLUMBIA – After the measles outbreak that happened earlier this year in February, some schools decided to revisit their vaccination regulations. 

County and state health departments allow certain exemptions from vaccinations, including religious beliefs and medical reasons, but some schools have decided not to accept some of those exemptions.

Dan Johnson, Head of School at Columbia Montessori School, said, after the outbreak, he decided to revisit the school’s regulation on vaccinations.

“Day care centers in particular are serving a student population that may not only include older students, but also include students that are too young to get vaccinated,” he said. “So schools had to consider whether to continue accepting students that are coming with exemption cards on file, either medical, religion, or philosophical exemptions.”

Johnson said schools sometimes feel pressured to let in unvaccinated children.

“It’s difficult to turn down a family. You want to boost your student enrollments and that means taking as many children as you’re able to serve. If you place restrictions on the children you’re able to serve, that obviously creates a greater degree of difficulty in terms of having a full center that allows you to financially meet your needs and so on,” he said.

He said conversations about regulation changes started in an attempt to preserve what's called the ‘herd immunity’, in which the community is made safer by lessening the risk of an epidemic. His school decided to only accept students with medical vaccination exemptions.

“There are several reasons why a child may not, under a medical professional’s advice, proceed with the regular immunization schedule. Maybe it’s because of an allergy or a reaction to an earlier vaccination,” he said. “Those students also need a high degree of immunity in the environment that they’re in as well, because a child that can’t, because of medical reasons, get immunized is really no different than a child who has not yet reached an age that can receive immunizations.”

Johnson said the decision got wide support from parents.

“We did, at the time, have parents who ask us, because there really wasn’t any need previously to ask us much about it. Then, when they hear a daycare center in Chicago had eight kids with measles, all the sudden they’re calling their child’s daycare centers and they’re saying, ‘hey, what are your policies’,” he said.

Sydni Stranz, parent and assistant head of school, at Columbia Montessori School, said she was happy with the changes.

“It was a little nerve-racking for a parent with an infant, and when the school decided to change their policy regarding the vaccine and have everybody vaccinated and show those records, unless it was a medical excuse, I was really relieved,” she said.

Stranz said the school acted quickly, changing its policy about 7-10 days after the outbreak was reported.

“Sometimes policies, especially big topics like that, can take a while. But our whole entire board of parents that are affiliated with the school, they were on board pretty much immediately,” she said. “With any policy change, we made sure that our parents were aware.”

Although it never affected the Columbia area, she said for diseases like measles, you can never predict what will happen.

“Obviously, where it happened, it was in a bigger city where dense population is, but Columbia is a pretty big town,” she said. “I think anything that the school can do to make it a better place is great.”

Paul Prevo, Owner of Tiger Tots Child Development Center, said vaccinations haven’t been a concern at their school. Although a majority of the children in their care are immunized, Prevo said the school follows the state licensing procedures and accepts any exemptions.

“Our parents have a great deal of trust in us, and we really didn’t have any concerns raised by the parents that I’m aware of,” he said. “We fully believe in the parent’s rights to choose how to raise their children.”

Prevo said the school was on high alert when the outbreak happened and kept in communication with parents on the benefits of vaccinations.

Johnson said he does not want to impose on parents’ beliefs, but the safety of the majority of the kids is what’s important.

“You’re trying to balance concerns parents have with vaccinations with concerns that other parents have in terms of preserving a healthy environment for their child,” Johnson said. “As a school, we certainly are not going to get into a conversation with parents whether they should vaccinate or not, that is a personal decision that families make. All we can try to do is preserve the healthiest atmosphere for the children that we serve.”

Columbia Montessori School did not disenroll students with exemptions other than medical, but Johnson said moving forward the enrollment will be much tighter.