Lawmaker: Iowa schools should educate on vaccination exemptions

State Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, talks about a bill he introduced that would require schools to share information about vaccination exemptions whenever they communicate about immunizations. (Photo by Linh Ta/Iowa Capital Dispatch)

It’s commonplace at the beginning of the school year for students to be sent home with immunization requirement forms, documenting they received their required vaccinations.

Those forms may look a little different however, if a new bill passes the Iowa Legislature that requires vaccination exemptions to also go on school documents.

House File 2139, introduced by Rep. Jeff Shipley, R-Fairfield, requires that “any information or communication” shared by a school official regarding immunization must also include details about Iowa’s religious vaccine exemptions.

Under current Iowa law, vaccine exemptions are allowed for medical or religious reasons. 

School-aged children in Iowa are required to receive vaccinations for polio, measles, Hepatitis B, Varicella, Meningococcal and tetanus.

Shipley said he is concerned families who want to opt out of vaccinations are not aware of the exemption. He sees vaccine exemptions as an important religious issue.

“For me, I want to believe in liberty and freedom for any individual to live their lives however they see fit, whether they’re Jewish, Muslim, Christian, Maharishi,” Shipley said.

A school in Shipley’s jurisdiction in Fairfield has the highest number of unvaccinated students in the state, according to a 2018 report from the Iowa Department of Public Health. Maharishi School of the Age of Enlightenment had less than 47% of students immunized, according to KTVO.

Several medical and school organizations who were present at a subcommittee meeting on Wednesday opposed the bill. They said it would increase the number of students who are unvaccinated, which could create more health risks for students attending school.

Chaney Yeast with Blank Children’s Hospital said she fears that busy parents who are unable to bring their children to a doctor to get a vaccination will cite an exemption. 

“I think an unintended consequence would be an increased misuse of the religious exemption,” Yeast said.

Lina Tucker Reinders with the Iowa Public Health Association opposed the bill. She said requiring school nurses and staff to teach about vaccination exemptions runs contrary to their goals of maintaining a safe school.

Reinders said she was also concerned about the bill’s impact on  “herd immunity,” — a community’s ability to resist diseases, according to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“Schools are meant to be a safe and healthy place for learning. Vaccinations are an important component,” Reinders said. “Any exemptions should be medically warranted.”

Rep. Skyler Wheeler, R-Orange, said he supports the bill moving forward, but he wants to see clarified language that doesn’t cause a burden on school staff.

“I think it’s fine to let people know that there’s a religious exemption in there,” Wheeler said.

The bill passed the subcommittee 2-1 with a party line vote and can be considered by the full House Education Committee.