Maine's school vaccination law is changing next month. Religious and philosophical exemptions will no longer be allowed. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

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COVID-19 vaccines — and why a dangerous number of people won’t get them and whether many people, including health care workers and college students, should be required to get them — have gotten a lot of attention in recent weeks. As they should.

So, it would be easy to forget that Maine’s school vaccination law is set to change on Sept. 1, when long-time religious and philosophical exemptions will no longer apply. This means that K-12 students and college students will be required to be vaccinated against a host of illnesses, such as polio and chickenpox, to attend classes beginning this fall. After Sept. 1, only medical exemptions will be acceptable for students planning to attend school without the required vaccinations. Medical providers can provide this documentation where appropriate.

Most colleges and universities required vaccination records weeks or months ago, and many are adding the COVID-19 inoculation to their list of mandatory vaccinations.

For K-12 students, parents will be given 90 days to fulfill the vaccine requirement if they provide written assurance that they are working to have their child vaccinated to comply with state law.

There are some exceptions for students who are covered for Individualized Education Plans who previously used the religious or philosophical exemptions. Documentation from a medical provider is required for these cases.

Proof of the required vaccinations is required for entry into kindergarten, seventh grade and 12th grade. For kindergarten, the required inoculations are: polio, DTaP, MMR (measles, mumps, rubella) and Varicella (chickenpox). A full list of requirements can be found on the Maine Department of Education website.

Because a growing number of Maine children were not fully vaccinated, lawmakers in 2019 narrowly passed a law to eliminate the state’s religious and philosophical vaccine exemptions. The legislation was prompted by a fairly steady drop in childhood vaccination rates in Maine, driving by a rise in nonmedical opt-outs over the previous decade. In the 2018-19 school year, Maine had the sixth highest opt-out rate in the country, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

High vaccination rates are needed to keep diseases like measles and chickenpox at bay.

An effort to overturn the law at the ballot box failed in March 2020. The vote was lopsided, with nearly three-quarters of voters casting ballots in favor of keeping the new law.

School vaccination rates rose last year, according to new data from the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention. About 4.6 percent of kindergarteners were exempted from vaccinations during the last school year, down from about 6 percent the year before. Most of these exemptions were still for religious and philosophical grounds, which will no longer be available.

School health officials in Maine and around the country report that many students do not yet have the required vaccination paperwork, which could delay their ability to attend classes. If parents haven’t already done so, now is the time to schedule any missing childhood immunizations, or, if necessary, to consult with a medical provider to get an approved opt-out, and to send the needed paperwork to your childrens’ schools.

Since Maine’s 2020 vaccine referendum, debates over vaccinations have become more heated and divisive. Despite strong evidence that vaccinations reduce the spread of COVID-19, and especially reduce the severity of breakthrough infections when they rarely occur, nearly half of eligible Americans remain unvaccinated against the virus.

As we’ve learned from COVID, vaccines are very effective at keeping diseases — and their most debilitating consequences — at bay. That’s why maintaining high vaccination rates is essential, whether for COVID or other illnesses.

The BDN Editorial Board

The Bangor Daily News editorial board members are Publisher Richard J. Warren, Editorial Page Editor Susan Young, Assistant Editorial Page Editor Matt Junker and BDN President Todd Benoit. Young has worked...