TRAVERSE CITY — Officials at a local Montessori school are tightening their vaccination policy in hopes of reaching a 95-percent immunization rate.
The Children's House will no longer accept students who waive vaccinations based on religious or philosophical reasons, and school employees must have proof of up-to-date immunizations.
The move comes on the heels of a community-wide whooping cough outbreak and the emergence of five measles cases in Grand Traverse and Leelanau counties. Both diseases are vaccine-preventable and can be particularly severe in young children.
Head of School Michele Shane said the new policy is an effort to protect the school's 235 students from illness. The Children's House is located on North Long Lake Road outside Traverse City and enrolls children from infants to eighth-graders. The Montessori model promotes frequent interaction between age groups.
"The nature of the makeup of our school community being three-month-old babies all the way to 12-year-olds really caused us to take a close look at the overall health of our community based on the fact that we'd really like for there to be multi-age interactions going on," Shane said. "It's part of what makes our community a strong place."
Students currently enrolled who have philosophical or religious waivers can stay in school and may enroll again in coming years, but all new students interested in applying must have proof of up-to-date vaccinations.
Shane said the school will continue to accept immunization waivers for medical reasons, and those students would go through the school's admissions process just like any other child who applies.
Traverse City resident Carrine Pomaranski has three children who attend the Montessori school and supports the change.
"My son has epilepsy, and therefore he's a little more susceptible to get everything and anything that comes along, and he gets hit a little bit harder," she said. "It's nice to know that he'll be protected."
She said the new policy takes the health of the entire community into account, not only those who attend the school.
"Parents send their children to a community to keep them safe and to learn," Pomaranski said. "They're just trying to go along with that."
The decision to change the policy wasn't an easy one, Shane said. Officials understand immunization can be a polarizing issue, and they worked with local physicians to craft the new policy.
"It isn't about who's right and who's wrong about this issue," Shane said. "It's about the overall health of our community."
Immunization report cards compiled by the Michigan Department of Community Health ranks Grand Traverse County 74th out of 83 Michigan counties, plus the city of Detroit, for vaccination rates.
State data compiled from school records shows The Children's House has waivers on file for 11 of 38 kindergarten, sixth grade and new students, about 29 percent. But Shane said he own totals show 8.3 percent of current students are fully-waived, or don't have any immunizations, and 15.8 percent are missing at least one immunization.
Dr. Michael Collins, medical director for Grand Traverse, Benzie and Leelanau counties' health departments, said he hopes other schools will follow in the Montessori school's footsteps.
"I think the special interest came form the pertussis situation and the measles and the extra problematic influenza season, these all tend to increase the local interest," Collins said. "It's too bad that something like that has to happen to focus the attention in that area, but it does have that affect."