Office for Civil Rights Issues Fact Sheet: Addressing the Risk of Measles in Schools while Protecting the Civil Rights of Students with Disabilities
The Office for Civil Rights (OCR) within the U.S. Department of Education has provided a fact sheet (https://www2.ed.gov/about/offices/list/ocr/docs/ocr-factsheet-measles-201503.pdf) advising school officials that when they address an outbreak of vaccine-preventable disease, like measles, they still need to be mindful of civil rights requirements. In particular, school districts and school officials must ensure that students who are medically unable to receive vaccines due to a disability, are not discriminated against due to the disability.
The fact sheet focuses on the rights of students with disabilities under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA. The Office for Civil Rights notes that the Center for Disease Control and Prevention has issued recommendations describing the measles virus and steps that can be taken to prevent becoming infected and prevent the spread of measles. School officials should use these recommendations and work closely with public health officials to determine what further steps to take to prevent the spread of measles.
The fact sheet then addresses how to avoid discriminatory treatment in schools. Legally, States and school districts can require that students attending school be vaccinated because the "presence of unvaccinated students in a school can pose a risk to other students."
Some students with disabilities, however, may be medically unable to be vaccinated because of their disability. Some disabilities, such as HIV/AIDS, leukemia, or other cancers, effect the student’s immune system, making them more prone to infection. Thus, state laws generally contain medical exemptions to vaccination requirements.
Ordinarily, school officials must make reasonable modifications to policies, practices, or procedures that otherwise require vaccinations, in order for these students to attend school. The Office for Civil Rights, however, notes that:
"During an outbreak or potential outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease such as measles, school officials should follow existing laws and policies in a non-discriminatory manner, and should seek guidance from and defer to public health authorities in considering whether, for these students with disabilities, school officials can continue to safely make a reasonable modification to a policy, practice, or procedure that otherwise requires vaccinations in order to attend school."
In conclusion, OCR addresses the need for school districts to support students who are unable to attend school. There are many reasons why a student may be unable to attend school. School officials should be mindful of the impact of extended absences on student achievement and establish plans that maintain continuity of learning.
Under Section 504 and Title II of the ADA, if a student is required to stay home during a measles outbreak because the student has a disability related to measles or the student is medically unable to be vaccinated due to a disability, the school district must provide educational services to the student. School officials should defer to public health authorities to determine whether the student should stay home. There are many creative ways to continue educational services while a student is staying home: "strategies can range from sending copies of assignments to students, to web-based distance learning course work."