More Maine children entered kindergarten last year with mandatory school vaccinations, as fewer parents called for religious or philosophical exemptions from vaccinations against diseases like measles, mumps, chickenpox and whooping cough.
The statewide philosophical and religious withdrawal rate for students entering kindergarten was 4.1% in 2020-2021, which represents about 450 students statewide. This is down from 5.6% in 2019-2020. However, in some schools the withdrawal rate was well above the state average.
A database released last week by the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention shows that a dozen schools reported at least one in five kindergarten students forgoing immunizations. A few schools had exceptionally high Kindergarten dropout rates for philosophical or religious reasons, including the Community Regional Charter School in Cornville at 39.1%, the Fiddlehead Center of Arts and Sciences in Gray at 35%, and the Maine Coast Waldorf. School in Freeport at 20.7%.
State public health officials have warned that, as many schools had incomplete immunization records due to the pandemic, it is difficult to draw precise comparisons between the past two years.
It is also not yet clear how Maine ranked last year relative to the rest of the country, as data for many other states is not available until October. However, the national churn rate typically hovers around 2%, and historically Maine’s churn rate has been among the highest.
Parents in Maine who enroll their children in school this fall will no longer be able to claim religious or philosophical exemptions for childhood illnesses, under a state law passed in 2019. Maine joins California, New York , Connecticut, West Virginia and Mississippi as indicated now prohibit non-medical exemptions.
All of the states that now ban non-medical exemptions have done so in response to the return of preventable childhood illnesses, like measles and pertussis, caused by high rates of withdrawal. Most exclusions are for non-medical exemptions, with medical exclusions accounting for 0.5% or less of all students.
The law, which survived a recall referendum in March 2020, is expected to eliminate the chronically high rate of religious and philosophical refusals of vaccination in some schools.
Carroll Conley, executive director of the Christian Civic League of Maine, said the organization supports the option for parents to opt out, and the new law makes it harder for those who are used to exercising that choice. He said some want to homeschool their children or leave the state to avoid having to be vaccinated, but many cannot afford to do so.
âParents should have the right to bring up their children in accordance with their religious beliefs,â Conley said.
But when higher percentages withdraw from vaccines, outbreaks in schools are more likely, and public health advocates argue that children’s safety makes a warrant necessary.
âWe should see a reduction in epidemics (not related to COVID-19) in a school setting,â said Tonya Philbrick, director of the Maine CDC immunization program. âOur goal is to create a safe environment in which children can learn. “
While COVID-19 vaccines are not mandatory for schoolchildren or FDA approved for children under 12, many schools will offer clinics this fall to improve school COVID-19 vaccination rates . Schools will be required to keep records of students who are immune to the virus.
The Maine CDC Vaccine Database shows that 50.5% of youth in the 12-19 age group have received their final dose of the COVID-19 vaccine.
It is difficult to draw firm conclusions about last year’s withdrawal rate, as the number of parents who did not submit a vaccination record or request an exemption for their children more than doubled from 1, 2% of students in 2019-2020 to 2.6% in 2020-21. . If a record is missing, it is impossible to know if the parents excluded the student from childhood immunizations or if the student was immunized and the parent simply failed to submit the forms.
When records are missing, school officials are supposed to track down parents and have forms handed in, but this has likely happened less during the pandemic.
âThese children could have been immunized or granted an exemption, but when records are missing, none are recorded,â said Jessica Shiminski, health program manager for the Maine Immunization Program.
Shiminski said the high number of missing records was likely due to the pandemic, which forced school officials to face many logistical challenges as they dealt with distance learning, distancing social, masking and other issues. For some schools, the search for parents who have not completed immunization forms may have fallen through.
Parents will be required to update their students on vaccines this fall, although Philbrick, Maine CDC, said grace periods will be established to give parents a chance to catch up.
In a scene set across Maine as school nears, Jayson Forgues from Brunswick brought his daughter, Monroe-Claire Forgues, 5, to get the shots she needs to start kindergarten through Mid Coast Medical Group Pediatrics Friday. Monroe read âBaabwaa and Wooliamâ for entertainment while receiving vaccines against a number of childhood illnesses, such as measles, mumps, rubella and whooping cough.
Dr. Lynne Tetreault, a pediatrician at Maine Medical Partners in Saco, said from what she saw in her office that some parents who chose to withdraw their children from vaccines experienced a change of mind during the pandemic.
âWhat science has taught us and brought to the fore this year is the value of vaccines, and the value has been demonstrated to parents who have opted out,â said Tetreault. Other parents may not have changed their perspective on vaccines, but are pragmatic about the requirements of the new law.
âSome just accept that now is the law and if they want their kids to go back to school, that’s what they have to do,â Tetreault said.
Tetreault said that as those 12 and older have come to get their mid-level vaccinations for the fall, his office is also offering COVID-19 vaccines to those who have not yet received their vaccines.
âWe have been very proactive about this, asking them if they would like to get them vaccinated against COVID during their appointment, and many have supported us on this,â she said.
Dr Laura Blaisdell, a pediatrician from South Portland, said not all parents who have chosen not to have their children vaccinated at school are fiercely opposed to the vaccination. Some may have been hesitant, but were able to be persuaded, while others may have checked the opt-out box for convenience. She said that with the new law coming into effect and more family conversations about vaccines during the pandemic, some parents may have been pressured to cross the line to get their children vaccinated.
âMany parents who previously refused to immunize their children are now saying, ‘OK, I guess now is the time to start immunizing,’â said Blaisdell. âThe pandemic has brought these conversations to the fore. “