State News

Personal conviction waivers in K-12 schools cause concern for health experts

An increasing number of primary and secondary school students in Wisconsin attend class without being vaccinated as measles cases rise across nation. 

Pdf By: Max Homstad

The autumn breeze of September signals stressful back-to-school time, meaning a shopping frenzy and navigating new schedules. 

However, for some parents, an additional concern looms: whether or not to vaccinate their children. 

Although most children are vaccinated, some parents are actively refusing to immunize their children for communicable diseases, which may put others at risk as a result.

Last year in the state of Wisconsin, 91.9 percent of students complied with immunization laws by receiving the required vaccinations –– a number that is down 0.3 percent from twenty years ago, according to data from the Department of Health Services. 

The answer to why 9 percent of students are not getting vaccinated may lie within Wisconsin’s immunization law itself. 

All that is required to opt out of vaccination is applying for a personal conviction waiver when signing a student immunization record. Once approved parents can send their unvaccinated children to school.

Wisconsin is one of 18 states that allows for the use of a personal conviction waiver — and the number of forms filled out in the state has gone up in recent years. Last year, 4.6 percent of parents signed the personal conviction waiver for their children, up from 3.3 percent ten years ago and 1.2 percent twenty years ago.

Parents of kindergarten to fifth grade students who are not immunized and who do not request a waiver are sent notices to either have their children comply with the states’ immunization laws or apply for a waiver. Parents failing to do either result in their child’s full exclusion from the school until one of the two requirements are met.

Sally Zirbel-Donisch, assistant director of health services for the Madison Metropolitan School District, spoke about the fears surrounding unvaccinated children attending schools.

“I think it’s a growing concern for all of us,” Zirbel-Donisch said. “As more and more parents decide not to immunize, that means our herd immunity — the number of people that are immunized and can’t spread disease — is going down.”

Zirbel-Donisch — who has been a practicing nurse for 40 years and has been with the school district for 28 -— oversees health services, evaluates nurses and makes sure the students in the district are at the lowest possible risk for disease outbreaks. 

Although Zirbel-Donisch recognizes the freedom parents have to make the choice to sign personal conviction waivers for their children, she puts the health and well-being of the students first.

“We hope that all parents will immunize their children just because that’s the way we can maintain the health of all of our students in our buildings,” she said. “The more waivers you have, the more we worry about the health of our kids — especially when you think of measles, and how prevalent that has been this year.”

The Center for Disease Control found over 1200 cases of measles in the United States alone this year, nearly doubling the amount of cases from 2014 Luckily, there have been no reported cases in the state of Wisconsin this year.

Immunization is key in preventing the outbreak of disease in communities, but Zirbel-Donisch says keeping the conversation about it going is just as important. This conversation can best start with primary health care providers who see children at an early age.

“There are parents you can continue to have the conversation with, who may be hesitant,” Zirbel-Donisch said. “You ask them about their concerns and questions, and as they develop more trust in you, they’ll be more likely to vaccinate their children.”

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