California now has one of the strictest vaccination laws in the country, but ambiguity in its wording has left school districts deciding on their own whether to grant special education students a de facto exemption.
The California Department of Public Health and the California Department of Education have not yet issued guidance on how to apply the vaccination law to special education students. Under the federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, students who qualify for special education services, such as speech therapy or small group instruction, must receive those services. Failure to comply leaves districts vulnerable to lawsuits from parents.
At the same time, beginning July 1, the state law will require all kindergarten, transitional kindergarten and 7th-grade students to be vaccinated against 10 communicable diseases before they are allowed to attend school, unless they have a medical condition that makes them unable to do so. Under the new law, parents can no longer refuse to vaccinate their children in public or private schools and child care centers based on their personal beliefs.
Officials at three Sacramento County districts – San Juan Unified, Twin Rivers Unified and Natomas Unified – said they plan to allow unvaccinated special education students to attend all classes, based on their interpretation of state and federal laws. They said they first plan a vigorous effort to encourage parents of those students to vaccinate their children.
“Federal law does trump state law and we are required to continue to provide them services,” said Jim Sanders, spokesman for Natomas Unified, noting that his district’s plan remains tentative. “We won’t refuse them an education.”
Other districts, such as Sacramento City Unified, are planning to limit unvaccinated students to special education services on campus and have them receive individual instruction elsewhere rather than in general classrooms. That is what the ban’s author, state Sen. Richard Pan, D-Sacramento, said was intended by the Legislature.