Editor’s note: This story led off this week’s Early Childhood newsletter, which is delivered free to subscribers’ inboxes every other Wednesday with trends and top stories about early learning. Subscribe today!
For much of the country, this school year started with Covid restrictions in the past: No more masking, vaccine mandates, social distancing requirements or testing regulations.
But for many Head Start programs, federal requirements remain in force, complicating operations. Under a federal rule announced almost a year ago, Head Start centers must require vaccines for staff and masks for anyone 2 years or older, according to the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees the program. The federally-funded preschool system collectively serves nearly 750,000 children from low-income families.
This is stricter than recently released guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which recommends masking for children only in areas of high transmission. And the policy, announced as an “interim final rule” in 2021, drew almost immediate opposition. Texas was first to challenge the interim rule, followed just over a week later by the attorneys general in two dozen states, who sued the federal government for what they said were “lawless mandates.”
Just two months after it started putting the new rules in place last December, HHS backed down slightly: An HHS spokesperson said the department told Head Start program managers in February that there would be no penalty for centers that did not engage in universal masking. The agency later promised to continue to hold off on enforcing its mask rule for the 2022-23 school year.
The vaccine policy, however, remains in place — but only for some states.
On December 31, a judge in the Northern District of Texas temporarily stopped the HHS mandate in that state. The next day, the mandate was placed on hold in the 24 states that had joined in the second lawsuit when a judge in the Western District of Louisiana issued a second preliminary injunction. As a result, Head Start programs in 25 states are not required to follow either the federal masking rules or the vaccine mandate — for now.
The conflicting mandates are a confusing tangle for Head start providers, according to Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, an advocacy organization. The association has been pushing for more flexibility and clarity since the rule went into effect.
The situation is further complicated for Head Start programs located in a school or private space that does not have vaccine requirements for its employees, Sheridan said. Only five states, along with D.C. require vaccines for school employees.
“At the end of the day, it’s just created such additional confusion, frustration,” Sheridan said.
The NHSA had tried to avoid some of that confusion in December, before the vaccine mandate went into effect. In comments on the rule, the group asked for clarification: What if a program is located in a school district that refuses to comply with the vaccine rule — does the center stop partnering with that district? What happens in rural areas, where there may not be other options for partners? What happens to Head Start centers operating in states that have banned vaccine mandates, or that have new laws preventing employers from asking about an employee’s vaccination status?
Sheridan said the Department of Health and Human Services has not responded to the questions.
Even without the uncertainty over mandates, Head Start programs, along with child care and other businesses, are suffering a major shortage of qualified workers.
Hiring is a “huge” issue, said Wanda Minick, executive director of the Florida Head Start Association. Florida is one of the states where the injunction is in place, and Head Start centers do not have to abide by the vaccination rule.
“Some are not getting applicants for their open positions, but when they do get applicants, they don’t qualify,” Minick said. “We’re just having a hard time attracting those types of positions that require the credentials necessary for them to work in the Early Head Start program for the salary that our programs are able to offer.”
Since the 2022-23 school year is now underway for most of the country, Sheridan said it’s even more important that Head Start centers receive an update on the status of the federal Covid rule, even if it’s just to say whether the rule is permanent.
“The number one thing is really some sort of final decision that gives a little bit of clarity to Head Start agencies,” Sheridan said.
This story about Head Start was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for the Hechinger newsletter.