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Amended bill would remove vaccine requirements for private, parochial schools 


Amended bill would remove vaccine requirements for private, parochial schools 

Feb 21, 2024 | 10:50 am ET
By Lori Kersey
Amended bill would remove vaccine requirements for private, parochial schools聽
House Judiciary Committee Chairman Del. Tom Fast is shown during a previous meeting. The committee on Tuesday, Feb. 20, 2024, advanced a bill that would eliminate the requirement that students attending private and parochial schools in West Virginia adhere to to vaccine requirements. (Perry Bennett | West Virginia Legislative Photography)

A bill heading toward the full House of Delegates for a vote would strip away vaccine mandates for students attending private and parochial schools in West Virginia.

As approved by the House Health Committee, House Bill 5105 would have allowed exemptions to school-mandated vaccine requirements for students who attend public virtual schools and do not participate in extracurricular activities or sports in public school settings. 

The House Judiciary Committee on Tuesday approved amendments by Del. Brandon Steele, R-Raleigh, that expanded the vaccine mandate exemptions to the state’s private and parochial schools. 

“This would allow private and parochial schools to make their own determination as to whether or not they’re going to adopt an immunization schedule such as the one outlined in current code, one more stringent, one less stringent or none at all,” Steele said. Under the amended bill, students who participate in activities sponsored by the West Virginia Secondary School Activities Commission would still be required to be vaccinated. 

Health officials have long touted West Virginia’s strong school immunization requirement as an example of what the state does right. While all 50 states have vaccine requirements against a series of diseases for kids attending school, West Virginia is one of five states that do not allow exemptions based on personal or religious beliefs. State law allows only medical exemptions for immunizations. 

The state has not had a reported case of measles, a highly infectious, potentially deadly disease, since 2009. 

Dr. John Frohna, a pediatrician at Charleston Area Medical Center, testified that the state “leads the country” in the strength of its immunization policies.

“I moved here from Wisconsin a couple of years ago, and I’m very proud to be part of a state where we have these high immunization rates that make my job easier,” he said. “You don’t have to deal with a lot of illnesses.”

Frohna said that moving toward non-medical exemptions for students would increase the chances of diseases that the state hasn’t seen in a long time will come back. 

“We really rely on herd immunity, which is a concept that requires that you have that certain immunization rate across the population in order to prevent the occurrence of those diseases,” Frohna said. “Certainly we’ve seen the evidence in states around us and throughout the country over the last several years where the herd immunity rates drop, and that results in more diseases that could be prevented.”

Opposing Steele’s amendments, Del. Joey Garcia, D-Marion, argued they would weaken the state’s immunization laws.

“I think we heard earlier from one of the witnesses how one of the things we have to be proud of in this state is our immunization rates,” Garcia said. “And I think this bill does harm.”

“When we do have something that we can actually say we’re in the top 10, top 5 in the state of West Virginia in the United States as compared to so many other things when we are in the bottom, I don’t think that we should certainly do harm to that,” he said.

Del. Chris Pritt, R-Kanawha, countered that while he hears that the state is in the top 10 in terms of immunizations, the state is “in the bottom when it comes to medical freedom.”

“For a state, given our electorate, given how we vote on so many other issues, it doesn’t make sense that we would not be in the top 10 states when it comes to medical freedom,” Pritt said. “This is an important issue. And with this now, certainly when it comes to this particular bill, I think that I would be in favor of an expansion of medical freedom and an expansion of protecting the liberty interests of parents. But I think this is a step in the right direction.”

Del. Shawn Fluharty, D-Ohio, called the changes “free dumb” and said he was not there to “make measles great again.”

“I think I’ll listen to experts and doctors and not pretend to play one at the Legislature,” he said.

The bill will next go to the full House of Delegates for a vote.