School districts face no punishment if they allow students without vaccinations in school

Published: Aug. 19, 2019 at 6:31 PM CDT
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Many students in eastern Iowa are heading back to school this week- but KCRG-TV9 found no one is enforcing the state law requiring those students to get vaccinated or have exemptions.

State law says students shall not attend classes without getting the required vaccinations or getting medical or religious exemptions, but there is no punishment for school districts that allow those students to go to class anyway, and districts are trusted to police themselves.

This came up when the Iowa City Community School District told TV9 on Thursday it lets students go to class even without up to date vaccination records. TV9 learned practices like the ones described in Thursday's statement are blatantly against state law.

The Iowa Department of Public Health says about 3,000 students in the state did not have required vaccination records last school year. According to Iowa Code, those kids should have been banned from class.

Health officials say state law is clear: students without complete vaccination records should not be in class. Jennifer Miller, the Disease Prevention Specialist with the Johnson County Public Health Department, said that's because unvaccinated students can put others at risk.

"The laws that we have are not specifically aimed at protecting an individual- they're aimed at protecting our community," Miller said. "The more people that we have who are vaccinated, the better chance we have of not getting people ill that can't be vaccinated and therefore stopping ongoing transmission."

Last school year, many students across the state did not have their records compliant with the law at the time of an audit in October 2018. For example, 88 of those students were at Waterloo West High School, Cedar Rapids Jefferson High school had another 204, and Iowa City West High School had 185.

However, enforcement proves to be a gray area, because the State Department of Public Health is not guarding the doors of each individual school.

"Really the person that these laws, the entity that is tasked with kind of the enforcement, are the schools themselves," Miller said.

TV9 asked 15 school districts for their policy. Dubuque, College Community, Cedar Rapids, Waterloo, Western Dubuque, and Clear Creek - Amana were among those who told us those students are banned from class.

On Thursday, August 15 - Iowa City Schools told us it lets those students still attend class. After TV9 pointed out that was illegal, Iowa City changed its statement Monday afternoon, minutes before TV9 was set to air the story.

Kristin Pedersen, the Director of Community Relations for the Iowa City Community School District, revised the statement saying it does send kids home who do not meet vaccination requirements.

The Johnson County Public Health Department audits that district annually.

Pedersen says the district offers support to help those students meet state code. For the first time in early 2019, the county re-audited those schools this past spring. Staff with the county said numbers improved, but they still found some students not in compliance- meaning they should have been kept out of class.

"These laws are put in place by our state," Miller said. "And so we're tasked with making sure that they're followed."

Miller said the department works with nurses to ensure schools are following the law, but some families are refusing, and some schools are allowing it.

"If it's just simply that parents are saying 'I don't want to immunize my child,' then they might have to make other choices about educational opportunities," Miller said.

Even though allowing those students into a class is technically against the law, Iowa Code does not have a punishment for school districts or parents that go against it. So while schools are trusted to enforce the law, there is no written repercussion if they do not.