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In face of new law, Sonoma County parents choose to vaccinate

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When Becky Kelso’s 13-year-old daughter shows up for her first day of school at Sebastopol Independent Charter School on Tuesday, she will, for the first time, be going to school fully vaccinated.

It was a decision Kelso, 53, and her husband were forced to make following the passage last year of Senate Bill 277, which denied parents the use religious or personal beliefs to opt out of vaccinating their children.

For parents like Kelso and her husband, that meant choosing whether to fully vaccinate, or take their daughter out of her school environment entirely — both public and private institutions must abide by the law.

“It was definitely stressful,” Kelso said.

She said her family wasn’t necessarily “anti-vax” so much as cautious about approaching immunizations they don’t see as entirely medically necessary.

Their daughter had been subjected to shots before, but “just the minimum amount,” Kelso said.

“We just wanted to spread them out so we could see what her reaction was instead of getting them all done at once.”

Decisions about children’s health should be left up to their parents, Kelso said, rather than being forced into it like her family was since the passage of the new law.

Over the course of the past few months, her daughter has been subjected to six or seven immunizations, Kelso said.

“I think it should be a personal decision,” she said. “It just seems kind of overstepping as far as (the government) goes.”

Another concern for her family was the expense involved, and whether it would have a negative impact on enrollment at some of the smaller public schools like the one her daughter attends — especially in the western part of the county, where schools tend to have a lower vaccination rate than in other parts of the county.

That hasn’t seemed to be the case.

At Crescent Montessori School in Sonoma, where last year 55 percent of kindergartners were fully vaccinated, there hasn’t been a decline in enrollment. The same goes for Sebastopol Charter, where an even smaller percentage of their kindergartners were up-to-date on immunizations last year: just 25 percent.

Those immunization rates are far below the total for the county, which reported a kindergarten immunization rate of 92.1 percent last year — up from the previous year’s 90 percent, though still below the statewide rate of 92.9 percent.

Chris Topham, executive director at Sebastopol Independent Charter School, a public Waldorf-inspired K-8 school of 290 students, said he was pleasantly surprised by the fact that enrollment numbers haven’t declined for the upcoming school year.

He attributed that, partially, to the fact the institution was proactive about starting the conversation with parents by hosting an information session with Karen Holbrook, the county’s deputy health officer, in early November last year.

“What was fascinating was that we didn’t just have parents from our school, but somehow word got out and we had home-school people and people from all kinds of places. We had people driving in from Calistoga, from Sonoma, Petaluma, Santa Rosa. It was standing room only,” Topham said.

And still, the school hasn’t had a single student withdraw over the new law, which requires students registering for kindergarten, or progressing from sixth to seventh grade, prove they’ve been immunized against 10 communicable diseases, including measles, whooping cough and chicken pox.

“I remember the first reaction by some parents was, ‘What are my homeschooling options?’ ” Topham said.

But in the end, parents have clearly decided to remain.

“People really love this school,” he said. “We’re a school of choice. We’re not a neighborhood school. People really want to be here.”

For parents who choose not to vaccinate, they have the option of independent study programs, like Pathway Charter School in Rohnert Park, where students follow a prescribed course by an accredited teacher, but the classes take place at home or online. There are occasional in-class components, though, and because of the new law, students who aren’t immunized won’t be allowed to take part, said Robert Cavonatti, executive director for the school.

While overall enrollment has increased for the upcoming school year, the rate of unvaccinated students has actually declined, Cavonatti said.

“Last year our unvaccinated rate was 28 percent, this year so far it’s 26 percent,” he said.

Holbrook said she was happy to see the county’s immunization rates have improved and that, accordingly, its exemption rates have declined.

“Vaccines are very proven and an effective way to prevent disease,” she said. “What I have done is gone out to schools, and talked about the new law and what it is, and helped (parents) interpret it. ... There is obviously common ground. We all want to do what is right for the children.”

You can reach Staff Writer Christi Warren at 707-521-5205 or christi.warren@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @SeaWarren.

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