Lewiston Sun Journal

Aug. 26—LEWISTON — As of last Friday, more than 200 students enrolled at city schools did not have vaccinations required for them to begin classes, according to Superintendent Jake Langlais.

The state's vaccine mandate took effect at the beginning of the 2021-22 school year. For the past couple of school years, Lewiston schools "tapped the brakes" on enforcing the mandate because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Langlais said.

So, instead of telling students without the necessary vaccinations they could not go to school during the 2021-22 and 2022-23 school years, the School Committee decided last winter to contact parents and remind them to get their children vaccinated, he said.

Over the summer, staff members called parents, sent letters and issued public messaging in multiple languages to remind people about the mandate and what vaccines their children needed to attend school this year, he said.

Some people were unaware children need one or more vaccinations, while others have been contacted several times about the issue, but have yet to act, he said. There is not one specific group of students that has a higher number of missing vaccinations.

By law, children who are not up to date on all the required vaccinations cannot attend school from the very first day, he said.

Some medical exemptions apply to certain children. The district is also willing to keep students enrolled if there is a vaccine schedule in place that might span a few months, Langlais said. There is a window of time that new students enrolled in the district have to get the necessary vaccines.

School nurses are trying to get ahead of the issue by helping families set up appointments to get their children vaccinated, but if families do not show up to those appointments, then there is little the school department can do beyond that, he said.

Home schooling seems to be the primary option for parents who do not want to vaccinate their children, according to registered nurse and Maine Department of Education school nurse consultant Emily Poland. All students attending public, private or virtual schools in the state must comply with the immunization mandate.

Required vaccinations include polio, measles, mumps, rubella, chicken pox, meningococcal, diphtheria, tetanus and pertussis.

Since the state's mandate took effect in September 2021, the number of unvaccinated students enrolled in school has gone down, according to Poland.

The vaccines help protect students against contracting those illnesses, which commonly afflict children, she said. It also helps reduce the chance of children being hospitalized. The Department of Education encourages all parents to vaccinate their children.

"Young and healthy people can get really sick from diseases and we want to use all the tools in our toolbox to prevent that," she said.

The situation will also further complicate school nurses' jobs when the school year starts and they have to perform all their normal job duties while tracking those who need vaccinations, Langlais said.

"It's an ask of them to keep this list and keep monitoring, keep communicating," he said. "They already have, come next Wednesday, a building full of kids who need attention, from daily medications that they take at school to bumps and bruises and headaches and upset tummies, you know. That's going to be dominating their day and they'll still be trying to track this list."

Families can walk into most doctor's offices that administer vaccines and get them done without waiting very long, Langlais said. The district has been in communication with local hospitals such as St. Mary's Regional Medical Center which is ready to give vaccinations.

Coming into the upcoming school year, families should not be surprised to learn their children are missing some of the required vaccinations, he said. The district has been in communication with families since last spring, using interpreters, when necessary.

"We're not looking to keep kids out of school," Langlais said. "We just need to make sure the vaccinations get done."

The number of Auburn students who are missing vaccinations will not be available until September, according to Superintendent Cornelia Brown.