The back-to-school rush may not be quite over for some families: kids have class schedules, homework assignments and new friends, but they may not have something else that’s essential — their required vaccinations.
In North Carolina, students entering kindergarten, seventh and 12th grades are required by law to get certain vaccines, including those to prevent chickenpox, measles, mumps, rubella and polio. The vaccines must be administered within 30 days of the first day of the school year — in Cumberland County’s case, Sept. 26.
Increasingly, though, parents are seeking vaccine exemptions for their school-aged children, particularly citing religious reasons. The number of N.C. kindergarten students granted religious exemptions, for example, jumped nearly 28% in the past year — 2.3% of all kindergartners in 2023, up from 1.8% the prior year. Nationwide, exemptions rose from 1.4% in 2012 to 2.7% in 2022
Medical exemptions can also be sought, but statewide just over 0.1% of students seek those.
Data for Cumberland County was not readily available, but Jennifer Green, the health director for the Cumberland County Department of Public Health, said students who have medical exemptions are most commonly allergic to an ingredient in a vaccine or may be unable to get a vaccine because of medical history or immunodeficiencies. Students with medical exemptions must submit physician documentation to the N.C. Department of Health and Human Services.
Religious exemptions, on the other hand, are simple. A parent or guardian must write a statement of a bona fide religious exemption and submit it to the child’s school instead of a vaccine record. The statement must not be notarized or signed by a religious official, nor does it need to be submitted to the state for approval.
With the deadline of Sept. 26 quickly approaching for students to get vaccines. Green encourages parents not to wait until the deadline to get their children up to date. Wait times can be long, and not all vaccines can be done in one day.
“If you show up on Day 29 to the health department (and) you've never had any vaccines, you're gonna be behind,” Green said.
Students without the required vaccines will be “excluded from school until the family provides documentation.” Last school year, 4.5% of kindergartners statewide were not up to date with required vaccines by the 30th day of the school year.
Vaccines for children are free at the Cumberland County Department of Health, 1235 Ramsey St. No appointment is needed. Covid-19 vaccines are not a required vaccine to attend school in N.C.
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