Homeschooling, vaccinations, and a giant loophole

Homeschooling, vaccinations, and a giant loophole March 15, 2012

I’ve seen some recent discussion of the existence of a religious exemption from vaccination requirements. It has occurred to me that people may not know about what I call “the homeschooling exemption.”

In most states, vaccination requirements are made so that a children are not allowed to start kindergarten until they have all of their vaccinations. This does not, then, affect homeschoolers. In other words, if you homeschool, most states have no requirement that you get your children vaccinated, or at least no enforcement mechanism.

This is not to say that all homeschooled children go without vaccinations. On the contrary, most homeschoolers have their children vaccinated even without the explicit requirement or enforcement mechanism. Others, though, don’t. And while I don’t have exact stats, we’re not just talking about small numbers.

A 2007 article in the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics stated the following concerns:

To protect public health, states require that parents have their children immunized before they are permitted to attend public or private school. But for homeschooled children, the rules vary. With the spectacular growth in the number of homeschooled students, it is becoming more difficult to reach these youth to ensure that they are immunized at all. These children are frequently unvaccinated, leaving them open to infection with diseases that are all but stamped out in the United States with immunization requirements.

While some of the homeschool families I grew up associating with vaccinated their children, others didn’t. This means that I grew up around children who had never had a vaccination in their lives. I also grew up around children who didn’t have social security numbers, but that’s another whole story.

In 2005, a measles outbreak occurred in Indiana in a population of unvaccinated homeschoolers. While no one died, several children were hospitalized. A homeschooled girl on a missions trip to Romania brought the disease home, and then exposed other children at a homeschool gathering.

To provide another anecdote, Joe of Incongruous Circumspection was one of these homeschooling parents who refused to have their children vaccinated. That is, until one of his children almost died from whooping cough after being exposed by other unvaccinated homeschoolers. That incident actually started Joe’s questions and led him out of the fundamentalist views in which he had been raised.

Believe it or not, some parents actually homeschool specifically to get around vaccination requirements:

Debra Barnes has a thriving chiropractic practice, a nice home and a family who loves living in the South, but she said she would leave Mississippi in a heartbeat if health officials tried to force her home-schooled children to be immunized.

Barnes is part of a network of parents whose decision to home-school their children rests on their belief that mandated vaccinations for public and private schoolchildren are a dangerous overreach by state governments.

Another article repeats this theme:

A growing number of parents are choosing to teach their kids at home not just because they feel they can provide them a better education, but as a way to avoid being forced to immunize their kids against disease.

The article from the Journal of Law, Medicine, and Ethics that I referenced above suggested closing this loophole:

States should encourage parents to get their homeschooled students vaccinated through enacting the same laws as those used for public school students. This could be done by enforcing current laws through neglect petitions or by requiring that children be immunized before participating in school sponsored programs. As most states require some filing to allow parents to homeschool their children, it would be easy to enact laws requiring that homeschooled children be immunized or exempted before completing registration.

While this suggestion is helpful, I think implementing it would be less than simple. Some states don’t actually require homeschoolers to register at all. In these states, homeschoolers are quire literally “off the grid.” Additionally, families who homeschool in order to avoid vaccinations, or who simply have very strong anti-vaccination sentiment, would not be educed to bring their children in for vaccinations without a huge struggle.

Regardless, until the laws are changed homeschooling effectively acts as a gaping loophole in the state’s vaccination requirements. And some homeschoolers, such as those in Indiana in 2005 and Joe of Incongruous Circumspection, suffer the consequences. When we voice concerns about the religious exemption, we should keep the homeschool exemption in mind as well.

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