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Calling The Shots: Best Practices For Independent Schools Responding To Vaccine Concerns

[March 3, 2015]  Vaccines (and whether to vaccinate teachers and children) are hot topics of debate across the nation. The recent measles outbreak linked to Disneyland has intensified this discussion and caused a groundswell of anxiety on independent school campuses. We recommend that schools take this opportunity to implement a comprehensive Immunization And Communicable Disease policy to reflect a school’s desired practices and applicable governing laws regarding vaccination requirements and non-immunized students on campus. This will ensure that schools have the flexibility they need to respond to communicable illnesses, while also protecting the interests of students, parents, employees, and other community members.

Legal Requirements And Duties

As a preliminary matter, we advise schools to become familiar with applicable law and to determine whether their policies and practices are in compliance with legal mandates and best practices. Every state requires schoolchildren to be vaccinated against certain diseases unless they fall within an exemption based on medical reasons, religious beliefs, and/or personal or philosophical beliefs. However, the intricacies of the laws – including the required vaccines, the types of exemptions recognized, and the documentation required for proof of immunization and exemption – vary significantly from state to state.

In Massachusetts, for example, schools may not admit an unimmunized student unless that individual has satisfied the criteria for a medical or religious exemption or the individual is homeless. Massachusetts also requires schools to keep a complete and up-to-date immunization record (or the required exemption documentation) on file for every enrolled student. Other states, such as Connecticut, also require schools to annually fill out a form disclosing student immunization information to the Department of Public Health.

Once a school has identified applicable laws, we recommend conducting an internal audit to confirm that the school’s immunization policies and practices are in compliance. A school should also confirm that any information on file (and/or provided to state agencies in accordance with applicable laws) is accurate.

Disclosing Immunization Information

Schools may receive requests from parents, teachers, or other individuals to provide information about student immunization rates on campus. Whether exemption rates may be tracked and/or disclosed depends upon applicable laws. Some states, such as Colorado, require schools to track exemption rates and to report this information to students’ parents directly. Other states, by contrast, only permit disclosure to designated state agencies. Connecticut requires schools to annually report student immunization information but defines this information as confidential. In Massachusetts, schools are permitted – but not legally required – to disclose student immunization rates to the Department of Health, which, in turn, makes this information publically available. In some states, disclosure to parents, teachers, or other individuals may violate students’ privacy rights.

Hence, understanding when a school should disclose information, and to whom it may disclose it, is an important component of managing legal risks in this area. Addressing this as part of a comprehensive policy will not only help the school avoid unauthorized disclosure of confidential information, but will also reassure parents who may be concerned about children’s privacy and even deter individuals from asking for immunization information.

Policies For Exclusion Of Non-Immunized Students

Perhaps the most contentious issue that schools will confront is whether a non-immunized student will be excluded from campus, and if so, under what circumstances. Some independent schools have sought to prohibit any non-immunized student from enrolling, regardless of whether the individual meets the state’s exemption criteria. This approach could create potential legal claims, such as discrimination or breach of contract. Moreover, this approach may seem too Draconian.

Accordingly, we recommend implementing a policy that reserves the school’s right to exclude any student who has a communicable illness, has been exposed to an infected person, or is susceptible on account of non-immunization, in the event of a vaccine-preventable or any other communicable disease incident. The goal with such a policy is to provide the school with a wide degree of latitude in responding to situations on campus that affect members of its community. Equally important, the policy will provide parents with notice of the school’s right to act.

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An Immunization And Communicable Disease policy can effectively address all of these issues to ensure that the interests of the school, its students, and its employees are well protected. A well-crafted policy will withstand the future unknown: whether it is measles, Ebola, or any other number of communicable diseases making the headlines, a school can rely upon this policy to adequately and effectively respond.

Finally, another component to an effective risk management strategy is to provide the school with grounds to manage or exclude staff and faculty when the threat of a communicable disease arises. As such, this may be an opportune time to visit the employee handbook’s communicable illness provision to determine if it is in sync with the school’s goals and best practices.

Please do not hesitate to contact a member of the Firm’s Education Practice Group if you have any questions about best practices for complying with state vaccine legislation and/or managing non-immunized students on campus, or if you would like our assistance in drafting an Immunization And Communicable Disease policy.