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Childhood vaccinations in Chicago public schools rebound after pandemic dip

A child receives a vaccine from a pediatrician wearing a white coat and face shield. Her parents sit on either side of her.

Chicago sees routine childhood vaccination rates rebound in 2021-22 after a drop the previous year when schools were virtual due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Marko Geber / Getty Images

Chicago Public Schools last year saw an increase in the number of students in kindergarten through third grade who had received routine childhood vaccinations to combat illnesses such as polio and measles, according to the district’s data.

The increase came after rates for routine vaccinations among the district’s youngest students dipped below 70% the previous school year, which started off with remote learning as the coronavirus pandemic surged. In the 2020-21 school year, buildings were closed when students were expected to turn in their immunization forms. 

Chalkbeat reported in late 2020 that families of young children enrolled in publicly-funded child care were either reluctant to send their children to doctor’s offices in fear of contracting COVID-19 or lost access to pediatricians they visited before the pandemic. 

Illinois law says that children must be up-to-date with immunizations before they enter kindergarten, sixth grade, and ninth grade unless they have religious exemptions. Districts require parents to submit vaccination forms by Oct. 15 as part of the enrollment process. Children can be excluded from schools if they do not provide proof of immunization. Students are required to be vaccinated against illnesses such as pertussis (whooping cough), tetanus, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, and chickenpox.

If children are not vaccinated against these illnesses, the city could see an outbreak in measles or a surge in whooping cough.

Routine childhood vaccination rates recovered last year as students returned to in-person learning. Roughly 82%, or 73,000 Chicago students in kindergarten through third grade, reported being up to date on routine childhood vaccines. 

Chalkbeat Chicago obtained the data through a freedom of information request. This data is as recent as Sept. 27; the district usually completes this data by Oct. 15 each year — when parents are expected to submit records of required immunizations and school physical exams. 

In the 2020-21 school year, 92,702 students were enrolled in kindergarten to third grade in Chicago, out of the district’s total enrollment of almost 340,000. In the 2021-22 school year, the total enrollment dropped to 330,000 and the number of K-3 students in the district fell to about 89,000. 

Chicago was once the third largest school district in the nation but was recently surpassed by Miami-Dade County Public Schools. 

A CPS spokesperson said the district has been promoting immunizations for other vaccine-preventable diseases as a part of its strategy to protect staff and students. The district said that it “provides access to vaccines through CPS school-based health centers independently operated by 13 licensed medical organizations.”

The city’s department of public health has been concerned about the drop in routine childhood vaccinations as well. In a statement, the health department said “vaccines can prevent many harmful and deadly diseases in infants, children, teens and people of all ages, and getting vaccinated is one of the safest and most effective ways to protect your health and that of your child.” 

Parents are encouraged to reach out to their school nurses to ask where to get vaccinated. The city’s department hopes that parents will connect to a pediatrician; if they don’t have one, parents can use vfc.illinois.gov/search to find a vaccination provider. 

The World Health Organization and UNICEF, the United Nations agency that vaccinates children across the globe, raised concerns during the summer about children missing some or all of their routine childhood vaccinations during the coronavirus pandemic. Both organizations believe that pandemic lockdowns, misinformation, climate emergencies, and COVID-19 vaccination efforts diverted resources away from pediatric vaccines that combat illnesses such as measles, polio, or meningitis. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported in April that vaccination rates for state-required vaccines declined by 1 percentage point in the 2020-2021 school year compared to the previous year. 

Samantha Smylie is the state education reporter for Chalkbeat Chicago, covering school districts across the state, legislation, special education, and the state board of education. Contact Samantha at ssmylie@chalkbeat.org.

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