Fresno Unified officials announced Wednesday they will defy a state law that bars students who haven't provided proof of a whooping cough vaccination from attending school.
District officials say they are keeping with their mission to teach. But also at stake are hundreds of thousands of dollars in state subsidies.
The law requires proof of whooping cough boosters for all middle and high school students at the start of the school year. State officials granted a 30-day extension after a tepid response to vaccination efforts during the spring and summer.
Fresno Unified's extension expires today, but 17% of the district's secondary students – about 5,200 teens – still haven't brought in proof of immunization.
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Officials will let unvaccinated students come to class today and Friday. But the teens will be sent to the school office to call their parents about the requirement. Nurses will be available at each school site to give shots to students who bring in permission slips signed by a parent or guardian.
Starting Monday, the district will sequester in school cafeterias and gymnasiums the students who still haven't turned in proof of vaccination.
Officials are calling the system a "modified independent study program."
"Our goal remains to keep our students in school on target to graduate," said Susan Bedi, Fresno Unified's spokeswoman.
Students who don't return proof of vaccination by Oct. 4 will be forced to study from home.
Other Valley districts are following a stricter interpretation of the law as they approach their deadlines this week. Clovis and Madera officials said they are barring unvaccinated students from school.
Clovis Unified will exclude from classes this morning 250 students who haven't provided proof of getting the booster shot, and there are still 1,300 Madera Unified students who may be turned away from classes Monday.
California Department of Education spokeswoman Tina Jung said Wednesday that state officials are still in the "information-gathering" stage.
"The law does say they're not allowed in school – but that's not a statement we can endorse yet," she said. "We understand there are some big challenges out there."
Jung said the state doesn't have the ability to impose penalties on districts that continue to allow unvaccinated students to attend school. But she added that the state may not provide funding for students who are sequestered and put into independent study programs, such as Fresno Unified has planned.
If the state doesn't pay, Fresno Unified could lose hundreds of thousands of dollars next week.
Valley schools are reimbursed about $30-$35 a day on average by the state for each student who attends class.
"Unvaccinated children do not qualify for independent study," Jung said. "I don't think they'll receive any reimbursement from the state if the students are allowed in school."
But Bedi countered that Fresno Unified officials need time to get the remaining students vaccinated.
"Any decisions about [reimbursement] is determined by the state," she said. "Our focus remains in keeping students in school focused on learning as long as possible as we continue to work on 100% compliance on this new state law."
While the district isn't the first in California to keep students in school after its deadline, it's the largest. Folsom Cordova Unified School District, just east of Sacramento, is allowing unvaccinated students to attend classes. Natomas Unified, also in the Sacramento area, is sequestering unvaccinated students.
The two legislators who authored the law now disagree about the penalties.
Assembly Member Nathan Fletcher, R-San Diego, said in a statement he believes schools shouldn't allow unvaccinated students to attend school.
Last year California had more than 9,000 whooping cough cases and 10 deaths.
But former Fresno Assembly Member Juan Arambula – who once served as a board member for Fresno Unified – said the law wasn't intended to be punitive.
"I don't think the districts should be heavy-handed about this," Arambula said. "There should be some flexibility or some extensions for districts who are having a hard time complying with the law."
Fresno Unified is the largest school district to hit the deadline so far. Los Angeles, Long Beach and San Diego schools have until the first week in October.
Los Angeles Unified officials said it was too early to estimate how many of the district's 670,000 students haven't returned proof of their booster shot.
"We're a long way out," said spokeswoman Monica Carazo.
San Diego Unified officials said more than 16,000 teens – or 24% – may not have been immunized. Long Beach Unified reports about 90% are in compliance, leaving about 4,500 stragglers.