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A computer screen shows the vaccination history of a child at a past screening event.

Pitt County Schools was forced to suspend a number of students who did not receive vaccines after sending warnings to about 300 as a deadline approached last month, officials said.

The number of warnings was higher than usual and largely applied to seventh-graders overdue for immunizations required by the state for children attending public and private schools, Karen Harrington, director of Pitt County Schools’ student services department, told members of a clergy group concerned about the suspensions.

State law requires students have standard vaccinations in place 30 days after enrollment unless they have a religious exemption. If students do not have the vaccines, they are suspended until they receive them. The number of suspended students was not available at the meeting. The school system did not respond to subsequent requests to provide the information.

“On a typical year, we have this issue for a few students whose parents have not been able to get vaccinations or health assessments, and usually it’s our kindergarten students. This year, it was really our middle school students that got caught up,” Harrington said during the meeting Wednesday with Pitt County Interfaith Clergy and representatives of Pitt County Schools, Health Department, Vidant Health and others. “We don’t want any child to miss any time, but we are trying to be in compliance with the law. Unfortunately, that means a suspension.”

State law requires all kindergarteners in any public, private or religious school to have vaccines for tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis, polio, measles, mumps, rubella, Hib, Hepatitis B, chickenpox and pneumococcal. Seventh graders must receive a tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis booster and a vaccine against meningitis.

Harrington said she had discussed the situation with Kimberly Hardy, director of nursing and personal health at the health department, and Felicia Mosley-Williams, director of Vidant’s school nurse program. They aren’t sure why more students failed to get vaccinated this year, she said.

“It was really the seventh graders this year, and what I’m hearing from them is that these children in general tend to be the kids that are not receiving well-child checkups,” she said.

She said most of the approximately 300 students who received warnings were vaccinated before the deadline. She said all of the middle schools in Pitt County saw suspensions. In general, the students affected are lower income. These absences are considered medical absences and will not count against the students. They are allowed to make up any work they missed.

This problem is not unique to Pitt County, according to N.C. Sen. Don Davis, who attended the meeting on behalf of the area’s legislative delegation.

“This is not exclusive to Pitt County. It’s not a statewide problem, but it does seem to be in some of the more isolated areas,” Davis said. “This has not been an ongoing problem. I want to make sure we’re clear on that. This is probably, at least since I’ve been serving, the most students we’ve had involved. … However, there is still a need for us to be at the table to communicate and collaborate to better manage this in the future and encourage families to go ahead and get their children’s vaccinations.”

His wife is a pre-K director in Greene County, and she told him parents there were slower turning in vaccination certificates this year, Davis said.

Vaccine supply is not the problem, said Hardy of Pitt County Public Health. “We ordered 200 doses of the (tetanus/diphtheria/pertussis) and 200 of the meningitis. We only immunized 59 students between June and September,” she said. “We had a walk-in clinic on Tuesday and only a small number came. The supply (of vaccines) is not the issue, access to medical care is the issue.”

Several schools, including H.B. Sugg and Sam D. Bundy Elementary Schools in Farmville, held immunization clinics for students. Principals also sent home information and called parents to let them know.

“I completely believe this is a communication issue. I think this can be mitigated in the years to come through communication and collaboration,” Hardy said.

Next year, 11th graders in North Carolina will need a vaccination before school.

“It concerns me that parents aren’t used to that,” Harrington said. “In the past, we did offer vaccines in schools, but when the health department faced cuts, we stopped that. That’s one of the ideas we’re looking at moving forward. … Our preference would be to not offer immunizations in the schools. But we’re willing to open up our school doors if it will increase access.”

Pitt County Interfaith Clergy wants to work with Pitt County Schools and the health department to mitigate the issue in the future, members said. The group will meet again to try to come up with a plan to educate parents and help them access vaccinations.

The health department is still offering vaccines for students who need them. If transportation is an issue, parents can reach out to their school social workers. Pitt County Schools has been providing transportation for parents and students who need it.

“The shots we can get free. We have been taking kids and their parents to the health department,” Harrington said. “For kindergarteners who need health assessments, we’ve been working with FastMed and paying with funds we have through Title I, discretionary funds for social workers, support from Open Door Ministries.”

Harrington emphasized that Pitt County Schools wants all students to be in school as much as possible.

“We don’t ever want to have to suspend a student for any reason, but particularly for immunizations,” she said. “We are trying to be in compliance with the law. If you are having a hardship, please contact us, and let us help you get connected to resources.”

To contact student services, call 252-830-4204 or contact your school’s social worker.

Amber Revels-Stocks can be contacted at arevels-stocks@ncweeklies.com.

Contact Bobby Burns at baburns@reflector.com and 329.9572.