Just last week, Maine voters backed the elimination of nonmedical exemptions from state vaccine requirements.

So, it may have looked strange this week to see lawmakers propose restoring a nonmedical opt-out for students enrolled in virtual public charter schools. But this was not a betrayal of the voters – it was the legislative process working the way it is supposed to. No law is perfect, and legislators should always try to improve them when they can.

Last year, Rep. Ryan Tipping, D-Orono, submitted a bill designed to stop the decline in the rate of Maine children who are immunized when they enroll in school. Statewide immunization rates had been falling below the threshold that public health experts say is needed to prevent these diseases from taking hold and spreading in a community. Tipping’s bill eliminated the religious and philosophical exemptions from laws that require students and workers in some professions to be vaccinated.

Vaccine skeptics fought the bill in the Legislature and then gathered enough signatures to put a people’s veto on the ballot in the next election. But instead of overturning the law, voters upheld it March 3 by a 3-to-1 ratio. The new law will go into effect with the start of the 2021 school year.

Just because the voters didn’t want to scrap the whole law, however, doesn’t mean that it was perfect. Like many laws on the books, it created unintended consequences. No one set out to keep unvaccinated children from enrolling in an online-only school, where they would not come into physical contact with other children, including those who cannot be vaccinated for medical reasons.

That’s why Tipping, who is no vaccine skeptic, filed a new bill to restore the exemptions for virtual-school students who do “not physically attend any classes or programs at a school or on school property.” The new bill also clarifies language around who can receive financial assistance to catch up on missing vaccinations and corrects an error in the original bill regarding when the law will go into effect for health care workers.

This kind of tinkering is essential to the legislative process. It would be impossible for lawmakers to foresee every possible outcome before they vote, so they need to know that they will have the opportunity to refine the statutes that pass as problems are presented. The changes proposed by Tipping would not violate the will of the voters, who were not asked to weigh in on specific details of the new law.

Not all the changes proposed last week make as much sense. Opponents of the vaccine law have called for increasing the state’s cap on enrollment in the two virtual schools, and exempting students from vaccine requirements if they attend religious schools that don’t receive state funds.

The enrollment in Maine’s virtual charters is capped because the effectiveness of this type of school is still a matter of controversy. Increasing their capacity beyond the level at which they can be supervised by the state would be a mistake. And students at religious schools deserve the same protection from infectious diseases as those who attend public schools.

With more than a year to go before the new law takes effect, there is ample time for families with unvaccinated children to work with their health care providers and school districts to vaccinate, seek medical exemptions or make other educational plans. If other unintended consequences arise, there will be another legislative session before anyone is affected.

We send legislators to Augusta so they can legislate. We shouldn’t act surprised when they try to do it.

 


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