Calling the shots

Following the passage of stricter immunization laws at the state level, the ICCSD has cracked down on the enforcement of vaccination policies throughout the district.


Vivien Ho

West Side Story investigates vaccine enforcement within the Iowa City Community School District.

By Annabel Hendrickson and Marta Leira

One thousand four hundred eighty-five students. All with different backgrounds, and most importantly, different germs. With 1485 opportunities for disease, the school can provide a breeding ground for bacteria. is is the reality that West is hoping to avoid with increased enforcement of Iowa’s vaccination policies.

When the school year began, there were 440 West students without a complete vaccination certificate. Their families were notified and school nurses and student family advocates worked with families to ensure students received the proper vaccinations. Thirty two of these students had to be removed from class. As of now, every student at West has the required immunizations.

According to Iowa law, it is the responsibility of the districts across the state to ensure that all registered students have the proper immunization certificates. These certificates don’t necessarily mean that students have all of their vaccines, but rather that they have all the vaccines they are not exempt from. The district exempts students for a variety of reasons ranging from medical to religious, but they must be officially cited in a student’s vaccination certificate.

In order to ensure that school districts across the state are following the law, schools are examined yearly by a county auditor. This effort is overseen by Sharon Richardson, the Iowa school audit coordinator. However, the state cannot be certain that every school is doing what is required by law on a daily basis, so it is still the duty of individual school districts to follow proper immunization enforcement policies.

“All students, according to the immunization law, upon enrollment are to submit their immunization records meeting the requirements for whatever grade they’re in,” Richardson said. “[The county auditors] don’t [ensure the district is following the law], and it’s not really their responsibility.”

Although the law has not changed in recent years, the penalty for breaking it has. If a school district fails to send kids without proper immunization certificates home, the principal of the school in question will be arrested and charged
with a misdemeanor. Because this process is so time-consuming and can result in students missing school, West hadn’t made it a top priority to enforce the policies in the past. According to Principal Gregg Shoultz, West began to be
more strict in its enforcement of the policy after finding out about the increased penalty.

“We are going to follow all state and national laws regarding immunizations in order to attend school,” Shoultz said. “In the past, we have not been as diligent about it as stated by law.”

However, the task of ensuring that every single student has the necessary immunization records is easier said than done. Because West has a diverse population, it is difficult for the administration to keep track of students from all different backgrounds.

“First of all, it’s a daunting task to make sure that all 1485 students today have that certificate because they come from all nations, they have different languages, they have different ways of doing the shots and they have different shot requirements,” Shoultz said. “The U.S. way of doing things is not necessarily the Ethiopian way of doing things or the Sudanese way of doing things.”

Since the administration began cracking down on immunization enforcement, the number of students without complete immunization certificates has shrunk from 440 to zero in just a matter of weeks.

Everyone should have the right to know their body and what they put in their body and what’s taken out of their body”

— Shanda Burke, Board member of Informed Choice Iowa

“For the last two months [the administration] has been working with parents and offering immunization clinics as much as they can, though they have to stay within a lot of rules and regulations with health care,” Shoultz said. “They’ve been using all the resources in our community to get students to get to their primary care doctor and get their immunizations.”

While the topic of immunization enforcement has only recently surfaced in the district, groups like Informed Choice Iowa have been lobbying this issue on a state level for years. Shaunda Burke, a current board member and former president of the organization, believes that students and parents should be given more of an option when it comes to their immunization records.

“Medical records are medical records; they should be personal information that the school doesn’t have access to,” Burke said. “We should definitely have a philosophical exemption as well.”

Iowa does not currently allow exemptions for personal beliefs. A philosophical exception would allow students to opt out of vaccines for personal beliefs rather than religious or medical reasons. Burke believes that this would allow students to have greater control in regards to the decisions they make about their bodies.

“Everyone should have the right to know their body and what they put in their body and what’s taken out of their body,” Burke said. “It’s body autonomy, it’s great freedom, personal liberty [and] people should always have a right in saying what is going in their body and what’s being done to them.”

From a different perspective, Luckas Weiner, Director of Pediatric Antimicrobial Stewardship at the University of Iowa, believes that vaccines are vital for the public health of the community.

It only takes a very small percentage of the population [to get sick] before you start seeing the infections break through”

— Luckas Weiner, Director of Pediatric Antimicrobial Stewardship at the University of Iowa

“It only takes a very small percentage of the population [to get sick] before you start seeing the infections break through,” Weiner said. “When you’re in a school environment and in such close contact, you could potentially be transmitting the infection to your friends, neighbors and colleagues.”

Weiner is especially concerned for students with compromised immune systems. This is why he believes that it’s necessary for vaccine laws to be enforced in schools.

“I think the laws emphasize the importance of vaccines and how they can protect children and the population in general,” Weiner said. “I think that people shouldn’t be afraid of vaccines—that’s the most important thing.”

This story was originally published on West Side Story on March 4, 2020.