ALLENTOWN, Pa. — Get stuck or get out.
That’s the message Pennsylvania school districts gave to students and their parents this year as they approached a deadline to comply with new state vaccination rules.
The message — and the vaccines — seem to have penetrated.
Spot checks of most of the 20 largest districts Thursday show the success of a Herculean effort by school nurses to get students vaccinated in the months, weeks and days leading up to the deadline, with many districts now reporting full or nearly full compliance.
Officials are still working to reach hundreds of students around Pennsylvania who have been kept out of class this week because they failed to obtain the required inoculations for mumps, chicken pox and other diseases. The deadline for most districts was Tuesday.
“The last thing we want to do as educators is kick kids out of school. We want them there. But, ultimately, there was a deadline, and the deadline came,” said William King, superintendent of the Scranton School District, where 61 of 9,800 students were turned away Thursday, down from 139 two days earlier.
The new immunization rules require children in all grades to receive second doses of mumps and chicken pox vaccine. Seventh-graders must get two additional inoculations, one against meningitis and another preventing tetanus, diphtheria and pertussis. The requirements apply to 2 million children in public and private schools, though students can obtain waivers for medical or religious reasons.
Families had eight months from the start of the school year to get their children immunized. But with thousands of students failing to submit proof of their shots ahead of a deadline of late April, the state Department of Health agreed to a two-week grace period.
School officials — primarily nurses — called, emailed, sent letters home, even showed up at parents’ doorsteps in an effort to get compliance. The Bethlehem Area School District was especially aggressive, running free clinics inside the schools.
“We told parents: If you don’t sign consent or don’t tell us your plan to get the shot, we won’t let you in school,” said Kathy Halkins, the district’s chief of health services and past president of the Pennsylvania Association of School Nurses and Practitioners. “The nurses were like little pit bulls.”
As a result, a district where 3,000 students required vaccinating at the beginning of the school year has cut that number to exactly one. And that student was getting his shot Thursday night — with Halkins herself depressing the plunger.
The state left it up to individual school districts to decide whether they would turn away students who failed to comply with the rules. The Erie School District barred 100 of its 12,500 students Thursday, down from 350 on Tuesday, while in Lancaster several dozen students are excluded from class. Other districts have allowed students to remain in school but warn they will be turned away in the fall if they fail to get vaccinated.
In Allentown, fewer than 500 students of a total population of about 18,000 still need their shots ahead of that district’s May 22 deadline — an improvement from January, when 3,000 remained unvaccinated.
In Philadelphia, home of the state’s largest school system, nurses and the city health department have also been working to spread the message. As of early spring, about 84 percent of students had complied with the new vaccination rules.
Exclusion is a last resort, said Rhona Cooper, the district’s nursing coordinator.
“Because we care about attendance deeply, we would make an assumption that even if we exclude a kid, that we have provided that family with alternatives to get a shot so the student can come immediately back to school,” she said.
Associated Press writers Peter Jackson, Mark Scolforo and Marc Levy in Harrisburg contributed to this report.