Nothing can spark controversy quite like the question of vaccines, especially since COVID-19. Individuals, families, and even legislatures can all disagree on the wisdom, efficacy, and necessity of vaccines. While everyone is free to have their own opinion on the subject, no one should be allowed to force others to share their opinion.
Unfortunately, most states have done just that in the form of childhood immunization requirements. Every state has some law linking vaccines for schoolchildren to school attendance. Options to avoid vaccination mandates are limited depending on your home state. This article introduces the subject of school immunization requirements, analyzes their applicability to homeschoolers, and explores the potential exemptions that may be available.
School Immunization Requirements
All fifty states, plus the District of Columbia, require every student attending public, and usually private or parochial school, to show proof that the child has been vaccinated. Nearly all state statutes refer to this as immunization.1 A few states explicitly require homeschool students to be immunized. Multiple states require all children in the state to be immunized regardless of their school status. If they are not immunized, children can be excluded from school enrollment and/or attendance. Parents who fail to immunize their children may sometimes be subject to criminal or civil sanctions.
In order to be compliant, parents generally must present proof of immunization to school officials, the district’s school board, and/or the state or local department of health (or equivalent agency). Though some states also accept proof of natural immunity or that vaccination is in process, we do not address this in our summaries. Proof is usually a signed form from the physician who administered the vaccines.
For the school year that began in 2022, only the District of Columbia mandated a COVID-19 vaccine for schoolchildren. An assortment of states actually banned various forms of COVID-19 vaccine mandates. We only note this when such laws are part of already-applicable statutes in the context of general school immunization requirements. This research is not specific to COVID-19 vaccine mandates and should not be interpreted as such; that will be a topic for a future study.
Application to Homeschoolers
At this point you may be asking, “How do I know whether these requirements apply to my homeschooling family?” As might be expected, there is not a simple answer for most states. A comprehensive understanding of the immunization requirements involves anywhere from three to seven separate statutes and administrative regulations per state. Our Law and Policy page on the subject contains brief summaries listing what the law requires, to what extent it applies to homeschoolers, if any, and what the exemptions are in each individual state.
Only a few states explicitly exempt homeschoolers from immunization requirements, while a handful of others specifically include homeschoolers. For these, the law is clear. However, the majority of states contain vague wording so that their exact application to homeschooling can be much less certain. Because of this, we have listed states that define homeschooling separately from other schools or that offer homeschooling as an alternative to school attendance as having vaccine mandates that “likely” do not apply to homeschoolers. Please note that this research only applies to K-12 schools, not colleges or other specialized schools.
To complicate matters, most states also include varying requirements for reporting or recording immunization status. Some states require immunization and reporting of immunization. Other states require school records that must be kept by the parents, but only have to be submitted to the government upon request. Still others do not require proof of any kind. When records or reporting are required, we have noted this in the state summaries.
We have also listed the penalties for noncompliance in states that specifically spell this out. For some states there may be a specific fine, while others may only label noncompliance a “misdemeanor.” In this case, you will need to look up the state’s definition of and punishments for a misdemeanor. If a penalty is not listed in the summary, it should be because one is not included in the state’s laws. In those cases,noncompliance may still be a violation of the law, and the state may still try to sanction parents in some other way, such as under a child neglect law.2 The absence of a specifically-listed penalty does not mean there could not be other legal consequences.
There are several different kinds of statutes or codes that come together to create a cohesive summary of how immunization laws apply to homeschoolers. Being familiar with this will explain how we created our summaries and give you some ideas regarding what to look for if you read the statutes for yourself.
- School Immunization Requirement. These are the baseline statutes that lay out the immunization requirements for schools and make enrollment or attendance conditional on immunization status. They can also include the requirements for record keeping and reporting.
- Exemptions. Exemptions may be listed as a subsection of the main statute, as a separate exemption statute, or in individual statutes for each exemption. If present, penalties are listed in the same way.
- Definitions. Most statutes are preceded by a definitions section earlier in the title or chapter that may include helpful definitions of “school,” “student,” and/or “child” for the purposes of that area of law. The definition may or may not include homeschooling within the general definition of school.
- Compulsory Attendance. The above statutes are often insufficient to determine whether immunization is required for homeschoolers, so it is necessary to look to a different section of the laws governing education to infer this. These laws generally require children to attend school through a given age or grade and stipulate the minimum education requirements. You are probably familiar with the compulsory attendance law if you are already homeschooling. Homeschooling is often listed as an exception to these laws. It can also fall under the vague requirement that students receive education “equivalent” to that given at public schools. Definitions in this section may indicate whether home schools are considered to be private or independent schools.
- Homeschool Law. Several states have a specific section of law dedicated to regulating homeschoolers. Homeschooling can be referred to as homeschooling (not surprisingly), a home school, home instruction, home-based education, home-based study, instruction by a parent or guardian, or something similar. These statutes may specifically require immunization or records for homeschoolers. Many states offer multiple options for homeschooling. In these states, immunization requirements can apply to some options, such as homeschools operating as or under a private school, but not others, such as families who are giving their children “home-based instruction.”
- Administrative Regulations. These are laws created by state agencies under the authority of the main statutes and usually repeat the immunization requirement and exemptions as well as listing the diseases to be vaccinated against and the vaccine schedules.
If you find that immunization mandates in your state do apply to homeschoolers, exemptions become very important. Parents may be required to submit an exemption form where they would have filed proof of immunization. Requirements for obtaining and filing an exemption vary by state. In some states only the school must keep records on file while in others schools must report annually to the state department of health. Exemption forms are often provided by the state department of health.
Several states allow the school board to determine whether or not an exemption is valid. This can mean that a school board or principal may reject even a medical exemption. A handful of states make exemptions difficult to obtain. Such variables are not covered in this research, so we recommend that you utilize the citations to examine the requirements for obtaining an exemption in your state. A few states clarify that exemptions may be overruled during a declared public health emergency or epidemic, which can have varying consequences.
There are two primary exemptions to vaccine mandates: medical and religious. A few states also recognize the related philosophical or conscientious exemptions.
- Medical Exemption. Under current law, every state in the country offers a medical exemption from the state immunization mandate. Medical exemptions typically require a proof from a certified physician stating that administering the vaccine(s) is contraindicated by the child’s health condition or that it will endanger the child’s life or health (depending on the state). Some states stipulate that medical exemptions apply only to individual vaccines and do not constitute an exemption from other required vaccines.
- Religious Exemption. The majority of states provide a religious exemption that may involve signing a document stating such objection. Depending on the state, a parent’s stated religious beliefs may be sufficient, but others may try to require the violation of a recognized denomination’s specific religious tenet. States may require that the beliefs be “sincerely held.” Six states do not or no longer recognize the religious exemption. Several other states have reserved the power to override religious exemptions during a state of emergency or health epidemic.
- Other Exemptions. A patchwork of states allows for a variety of other objections. These may be called philosophical, ethical, conscientious, personal belief, or parental exemptions. Exemptions in this category are sometimes combined with or replace the religious exemption and are generally claimed in the same way.
Vaccine mandates are a controversial, complicated, and consequential area of law with which you as a parent must be familiar. Regardless of your position on vaccines, we are committed to defending your parental right to make the vaccine decisions you believe are in the best interests of your own child.
To gain a better understanding of the current vaccination mandate in your state, we encourage Heritage Defense members to review our Law & Policy page on this issue.
If you are a member of Heritage Defense and still have questions after reviewing our Law & Policy page about Vaccine Mandates, please contact our office to schedule a consultation with one of our attorneys.
If you are a Christian homeschooling family but are not yet a member of Heritage Defense, learn more about joining today!
1 A notable exception being Kansas, which calls it “inoculation.”
2 This is merely an example, not a statement regarding the law. Whether or not failure to vaccinate could be considered child neglect varies by state law.