Student vaccine data unreliable, health department says as it seeks a solution

The state health department collects vaccination rates from schools because it has to keep track of how many students have the required shots. But the department says that because of the way the reporting system is set up, it doesn’t know for certain how many unvaccinated students are attending school.

That means people who want to know their district’s vaccination rate, for example, won’t find reliable information if they call and ask.

But the department is trying to fix that.

It noticed some inconsistencies with the data, so it created a policy to validate the data schools provide, Holli Senior, former spokesperson for the Department of Health said.

The department’s goal is to have every child immunized, but it has found it needs uniformity in reporting. It wants to get rid of the provisional period that extends the deadline for students to be vaccinated.

A call to end the provisional period

The provisional period is a part of Pennsylvania law that allows children to attend school most of the year even if they don’t have the required vaccines. If they still don’t have their shots after the extended deadline, they can be kept home.

It is the responsibility of schools to follow regulations about keeping unvaccinated students out of school, but there’s not a whole lot the Department of Health can do to ensure that those students are denied, Senior said.

The Department of Health and the Department of Education plan to start a campaign aimed at schools to increase vaccination rates by expressing the importance of vaccines and of accurately keeping track. The health department thinks a lot can be done with proper education.

Getting rid of the provisional period would allow the department to clearly see how many students don’t have their vaccines, because data would not just be a snapshot in time with continual additions. It would also allow students to be dismissed from school sooner if they don’t have their shots.

The end of the this year’s provisional period is coming for most school districts.

According to state law, the plan for completing the required vaccines is reviewed every 60 days by the school administrator. The provisional period lasts eight months and begins once the student is admitted without all vaccinations completed. If the student is still missing vaccines after eight months, the school administrator “may not admit the child to school or permit continued attendance.”

But the long provisional period doesn’t give schools much of a chance to deny admission, allowing children without the required vaccines to attend school for almost the entire year, Senior said.

The number of students provisionally attending school reflects how many students are missing some vaccines, or just one. The department does have those numbers, but the issue with trying to determine anything from the data is that when the department pulls the numbers from the system, that information could already be different because schools continue to add to it. The data given at any point in time, the department said, is a snapshot in time and changes depending when you pull that information out of the database.

The health department provided vaccination data to the York Daily Record in March. Going by that data, the number of students with vaccines, with exemptions and those who were kept out of school because they didn’t have shots does not add up. However, the department said, that’s because of when the data was pulled and because of the provisional period.

Also, if someone requests the vaccination information, the department said it won’t give data for schools that have fewer than 20 students because it could be possible to identify individual students, which would violate privacy laws.

Schools’ response

The Red Lion Area School District is all set. It’s ready for the end of the provisional period with all of its students vaccinated, said Kim Schlemmer, assistant superintendent and Kate Diorio, supervisor of pupil services at the school district. But up to this point, they have never had an experience where a student has been excluded from graduation or moving on to the next grade level, because the process is based on earning credits, not obtaining vaccines.

Red Lion works to support families to get the required immunizations well before the due date to avoid those kinds of consequences, Schlemmer and Diorio said. Their parents were notified by a letter about the provisional requirements. Red Lion staff also provided follow up calls and assistance in making an appointment for their children if needed.

The school also held an immunization clinic within the district to help families complete necessary vaccinations. It was so successful that another one is being planned for June 9.

Northern York County School District also sent letters home during the provisional period to let parents know their students are missing vaccinations, but the district now has all of its students vaccinated, Supt. Eric Eshbach, said.

The district has excluded a student before. But staff works with the parents in advance, and school nurses are in contact with parents throughout the school year, to try to avoid that.

Generally, when parents get Eshbach’s letter that says the student won’t be able to attend school, that wakes people up, he said.

“A lot of times they already have vaccinations. They just haven’t turned in the documentation to us,” Eshbach said.

In the news

Vaccines have been the center of discussion lately with the recent measles outbreak in California and, locally, the pertussis outbreak at St. Patrick Catholic School in York City in March.

In Pennsylvania, the state health department tracks student vaccinations. Most schools are responsible for reporting their own vaccination rates directly into the department’s database. Public, private, cyber and charter schools report their numbers broken down by individual vaccines. Home schools report to the school district that they are in.

After pulling data, the department has contacted other states and noticed that there are other states that rely on schools to input the data, and that other states are experiencing issues with reporting.

Required vaccines

1. Diphtheria: serious bacterial infection usually affecting nose and throat

2. Tetanus: also known as lockjaw

3. Poliomyelitis: Polio

4. Measles (rubeola)

5. German measles (rubella)

6. Mumps

7. Hepatitis B (HepB)

8. Chicken pox (varicella)- the varicella vaccine or evidence of immunity

For entry into 7th grade:

1. Tetanus and diphtheria toxoid and acellular pertussis vaccine (TdaP)

2. Meningococcal Conjugate Vaccine (MCV): protects against bacteria that cause meningococcal disease (for example, meningitis).

Get more information about vaccine requirements.

See it on YDR here.

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