CLEVELAND — The state of Ohio requires all students coming into kindergarten to have been vaccinated against things like measles, mumps, diphtheria and more. But how well are your kids’ schools following the rules? Our exclusive News 5 investigation uncovers a troubling trend.
Watch Investigator Jonathan Walsh's report on News 5 at 6 p.m.
We are trying to come out of a worldwide pandemic, and Jenny Weiss from Cleveland is worried.
“I don’t want another outbreak. I don’t want to be stuck in my house,” said Weiss.
Her two sons attend Cleveland Metro’s Charles A. Mooney School on the west side, a school our investigation reveals that, even before the pandemic, more than half the kindergartners were missing at least one vaccination for infections like diphtheria, measles and whooping cough.
“My kids, in order to go to kindergarten, they had to be updated on all their shots,” said Weiss. “So, I had to call the doctor.”
And when the pandemic hit, things got worse in Ohio. We analyzed childhood vaccination rates from data provided by the Ohio Department of Health for kindergartners since 2017. We found that both during the pandemic and pre-pandemic, numerous schools in districts across our area have been falling short of what Ohio laws require. So much so that local doctors are concerned.
How did your child's school fare? Below is a searchable database showing the percent of Kindergarten students missing at least one vaccination at every school in Ohio for the pre-pandemic 2018-2019 school year.
“It was fascinating to see which schools were on that list,” said Dr. Shelly Senders from Senders Pediatrics.
And it’s not just the Charles A. Mooney School. Many other CMSD schools had problems, too, before the pandemic. Cleveland parents we talked to had no idea.
"It ain’t like they’re going to go around saying, ‘Oh, I got a shot,’” said Heather Pesta, who has several kids in or about to attend school in CMSD.
Ohio law makes it clear: “Students who don’t meet the full requirements, do not provide proof of immunizations, do not have immunization exemption or who are not in-process (of getting the shots) are not permitted to remain in school for more than 14 days.”
“If they’re not going to do it, they should be remote,” said Weiss. “Have them do at-home learning until they’re vaccinated.”
CMSD refused to go on camera but did send a statement that said, in part: “families might lack a regular (medical) provider…” or “fail to submit documentation.”
The data shows Akron also saw concerning rates even before the pandemic. Akron did not go on camera either, but said, in part: "…if a student’s vaccine series is ‘in progress’ [sic] the student can…attend classes."
The data shows, though, only some families claim they are in process, and religious or health exemptions are very rare.
“We’re certainly concerned that immunizations are lower than they have been previously,” said Dr. David Karas, who is a pediatrician with Akron Children’s Hospital. “We really want to have those conversations with families to reassure them that vaccines are safe and important,” Dr. Karas told us.
The Ohio Department of Education said it doesn’t enforce the vaccination requirements. The Ohio Department of Health told us it doesn’t either, but that it’s up to the school districts’ nurses and administrators to impose the rules on vaccinations.
“When I saw [our vaccination data] I thought, ‘Wow! This is clearly a health and safety issue that we need to… another one of the health and safety issues that we need to work through,’” said Ralph E. Johnson, the CEO of BreakThrough Public Schools. He took on that role about five months ago.
The ODH data shows the BreakThrough system has also struggled with vaccinations despite state requirements.
“That probably is what the letter of the law says,” said Johnson. “I think having a Kindergartner that needs to go to school not be in school is not a good thing.”
Prioritizing student education was a common theme among school officials who spoke about vaccination requirements.
“Our mission is to educate children first and foremost," said Natalee Long, the Sr. VP of Operations at Accel Schools, which has buildings in Cleveland, Lorain, Parma and more. "We’re going to do that and we’re not going to allow anything to get in the way."
She told us vaccination rates depend on nurses getting the correct data to ODH, parents’ involvement with their children and consistent staffing. She said despite high rates of children who are not fully vaccinated in some of its schools, Accel won’t keep kids out of class.
We asked what she would say to parents who might be worried about unvaccinated kids being allowed in the classroom.
“I would say that is a direct result of free and appropriate public education,” said Long. “We can’t prohibit a child from attending despite their vaccination status.”
Doctors and the Ohio Department of Health told us nurses and administrators actually can prevent students who are not fully vaccinated from attending class.
“What fascinated me about that is that the school nurses allowed them to go to school,” Senders said.
The protection the vaccines provide is important. For three years just before COVID (2017-2019), ODH reported our state saw 167 cases of mumps, over 1,300 cases of chickenpox, and nearly 2,500 patients with whooping cough.
Weiss pleaded with fellow parents to do what’s required now for her son's sake and for all students.
“Please get your kids vaccinated,” said Weiss. “It’s for their health.”
However, one thing we found is that there’s no real oversight on the vaccination requirements, no consequences that are enacted.
The good news is that because of what school districts learned through the COVID pandemic and how they were able to help get vaccines to students, those processes will may be beneficial to help increase the other vaccines as well.
Where does your child's school stand now? Below is a searchable database showing the percent of Kindergarten students missing at least one vaccination at every school in Ohio, based on the most recent available data from the 2020-2021 school year.
Here’s the statement from CMSD:
The reasons for our immunization rates can vary.
Besides the exceptions permitted by state law, families might lack a regular provider or “medical home,” be wary of vaccines or fail to submit documentation.
In addition, if students are homeless, federal law allows families to enroll without providing medical records. Once the students are enrolled we work to connect their families to services.
CMSD, with help from community partners, is taking steps to ensure that all students’ needs for immunization and other aspects of health care are met. These include:
· Offering comprehensive mental and physical health services, including immunizations, in schools. With support from the Cleveland and George Gund foundations and Say Yes to Education, we are piloting the model at four buildings and hope to expand it across the district. Under this model, a single consent form gives students access to a range of providers at little or no cost to their families.
· Hosting MetroHealth mobile clinics that make scheduled rounds to 13 schools. Personnel who staff the clinics can administer immunizations with parental consent.
· Assigning a healthcare professional to every building, effective this school year. Besides tending to immediate needs, these school nurses and LPNs can provide healthcare education, help families navigate the healthcare system and assist them in finding a medical home.
· Working with Say Yes to Education to place a Say Yes family support specialist in every building for SY2022-23. The specialists, who are licensed social workers, help families and students get the services they need to overcome barriers to success.
A statement from Akron Public Schools is below, along with their answers to questions we asked a district spokesperson via email:
The Ohio Department of Health added additional vaccine requirements beyond the original standard enrollment that occurs at the Kindergarten level enrollment. Additional new vaccines or boosters for standard vaccines needed for enrollment were added for students in grades 7-12 depending on the type of vaccine. Instructing families of these additional requirements has been a challenge that we have taken on through informational outreach in conjunction our school health providers; local county health professionals and direct mail announcements.
There are also students that must be serve per law, such as unaccompanied minors, that public schools district are required to enroll upon arrival to the district. The district has a number of homeless students that are very mobile within the region and the Akron area services a number of immigrant populations that enroll upon entry into the USA/local community (APS currently has 1,400 students that are considered ESL learners) that come from countries that have wide variance with vaccination requirements.
Per the instructions provided by the Ohio Department of Health, if a student's vaccine series is "in progress" the student can be enrolled or attend classes. A delay in completing the series in the prescribed manner can be a challenge. APS and school health team members continue to outreach to families to remind of that their vaccines must be updated.
All families receive a direct mailing of the Immunization Requirements annually at the beginning of each school year. This information is also available on the district's website; each school works with families to provide them information on where vaccination are available and our local school health providers have also set up school clinics that are open to the any student that needs to receive a vaccine to make opportunity for vaccine administration as close to their residence as possible.
We understand the pandemic played a significant role as families just didn't take their children to doctors' appointments out of fear of catching COVID.
Q: Can you help us understand how compliance is handled within the district? If a child doesn't have all the shots, what does APS do?
APS sends directed information to the parent/guardian of the student informing them of non-compliance and every effort is to provide vaccination locations information within the community that offer the correct services to become compliant. Continued outreach and follow up by APS staff is ongoing until standards are met.
There are state requirements to follow when it comes to these kinds of vaccines.
Q: You mentioned efforts have been renewed. What are those efforts?
Children's Hospital's Mary Schatz told me Ohio is back working on compliance with public health departments, just as it was pre-COVID. This is correct.
Q: How will the numbers improve in your estimation?
The goal is to have every student be compliant unless there is a justified medical reason provided by the attending physician of a student not to meet this requirement going forward.
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