NEWS- Sticking point: Required shot catches parents off guard
Like the roughly 900 other Albemarle County children who made the dramatic leap from elementary school to middle school last Wednesday, Alison Visokay's daughter was a little anxious the night before– especially after Visokay received a 6pm phone call informing her that her daughter wouldn't be allowed to go to school in the morning.
Apparently, that was news to hundreds of other new 6th graders and their parents that night as well.
In 2006, the General Assembly passed a law requiring rising 6th graders to have a combined Tetanus, Diphtheria, and Pertussis (TDaP) booster within five years of entering school. However, because of the late-summer passage of the bill, parents were given a 90-day grace period to get the required booster last year. This year, however, Virginia schools were told the requirement needed to be strictly enforced.
"Last year it was a softer approach," says city schools spokesperson Cass Cannon, "but this year the gate was essentially barred– and I think that shift caught some parents off guard."
Indeed, the TDaP requirement even caught one high level school official by surprise. School Board member Brian Wheeler, who has a 6th grader at Henley Middle School, says he was unaware of the strictness of the booster requirement; he also received a late-night call because the school didn't have written notice of the booster his son had received over the summer.
"On Tuesday before school, my wife was able to get the doctor to write down that our son had had the shot," says Wheeler. "Close call."
Miraculously, Visokay was able to schedule a doctor's appointment for her daughter before classes started at Jack Jouett Middle School the next morning. Indeed, hundred of parents had to scramble to produce documentation or fit a doctor's appointment in before the start of school.
Some kids weren't so lucky. At the five county middle schools, dozens of students were either turned away or removed from class and detained in cafeterias or administration offices until parents provided booster documentation– or came to pick them up.
According to Diane Behrens, executive director of support services for Albemarle County schools, of the roughly 900 kids entering 6th grade, 62 were unable to attend school that first day because the TDaP booster requirement had not been met. Behrens said that letters about the booster requirement were sent out to parents of 5th graders in the spring, but after that it was the individual school's responsibility to inform parents. "Some schools were more proactive than others," she says.
Indeed, parents who attended new student orientation meetings at Burley and Jack Jouett say there was no mention of the new booster requirement. Still, there is also nothing about it on the county schools' website, and the fact that hundreds of parents were called the night before school seems to indicate that some school officials had failed to discover the problem in time.
Behrens says the problem surfaced when the county's school nurses, who returned to work only a week before school started, began noticing the number of students without proof of the TDaP booster. Notices were sent out, says Behrens, but by Monday it was clear that hundreds of students would likely be denied entry into school on Tuesday. "That's when we decided to make the phone calls," she says.
In contrast, city school administrators began calling families three weeks before the start of school, as soon as they realized there might be a problem, says Cannon. In addition, the City sent out an August 1 news release and parent notice, viewable on the city website, which states in bold: If the school does not have documentation, per state law, your child cannot begin the school year at its lone middle school, Walker.
Cannon also says an information table about the new booster requirement was set up at Walker's open house. Behrens points out, however, that while the city has just one middle school, the county has five.
Visokay concedes it was her responsibility to see that her daughter's immunizations were up to date before school started, but she says she assumed there would be some kind of grace period, as there are for other shots.
However, as Virginia Department of Health spokesperson Laura Ann Nicolai points out, because the TDaP booster is a new requirement, there is no grace period. "Students can be admitted to school conditionally if they've received at least one dose of a required immunization."
While Behrens insists that parents and school officials received sufficient notice of the booster requirement– which was, after all, mandated last year– she admits the county might have been more proactive.
"Next fall, we'll put a division-wide process in place to inform parents," she promises.
Indeed, county schools might be wise to improve communication for next year's incoming class of 6th graders, as the long list of required immunizations will get longer. In addition to TDaP, 6th grade girls in Virginia will have to get three doses of human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine, a controversial requirement recently passed into law to target sexually transmitted diseases that can cause cervical cancer and genital warts.
More information about required immunizations is available on the Virginia Health Department website at vdh.state.va.us/Epidemiology/Immunization/ or at 1-800-568-1929.