In this Dec. 8, 2020, file photo, Lorelei Lowell cuts out an angel she colored in her kindergarten class at Saint Dominic Academy in Lewiston. Credit: Russ Dillingham / Sun Journal via AP

The Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention is reporting that fewer Maine families sought to exempt their kindergarteners from school vaccination requirements last year than the year before.

That finding comes just a few weeks before a new state law goes into effect that will no longer allow philosophical and religious exemptions for vaccines protecting against measles, mumps, rubella and other diseases. And schools and health care groups said they are working hard to ensure that students are vaccinated as they return to the classroom.

About 4.6 percent of kindergarteners were exempted from vaccinations during the last school year, down from about 6 percent the year before, according to newly released state data. Only a small fraction of those exemptions were granted for medical reasons. Most were sought on “religious” or “philosophical” grounds.

But under a new law that goes into effect this fall, those religious and philosophical exemptions will no longer be allowed, except for select cases for students with individualized education plans.

Steve Bailey, with the Maine School Management Association, said he’s thankful that the state is providing districts a bit of breathing room in enforcing the new law. He said if a family fills out a letter assuring that their child will be vaccinated, they’ll have an additional 90 days to get them immunized.

“We’re very pleased that both the law, as well as the rule, will allow that to happen,” Bailey said. “And help us get as many families in as possible.”

But Janis Hogan, a school nurse with Camden Hills Regional High School, said even with the extra time, she’s scrambling to get vaccination records from more than 100 students. She said a majority of students with vaccine exemptions last year have yet to provide vaccination records this year.

“And in addition to that, we have seniors — incoming seniors need to submit documentation of their meningococcal vaccine,” she said. “And I have over 100 students who have still not submitted that information, either. So it’s been a challenge this year.”

Hogan said for more than a year, her school has sent multiple letters alerting parents to the new vaccine requirements, and will contact them again if a child’s vaccination status hasn’t been submitted by the first day of school.

State officials said that while COVID-19 has complicated the vaccination efforts, many schools and health care groups have partnered on clinics to help children catch up on their immunizations.

This article appears through a media partnership with Maine Public.