Late last month, the Office of Head Start in Washington, DC issued new requirements to all Head Start programs across the country requiring mandatory masking for individuals 2 years of age or older, as well as requiring COVID-19 vaccines for all Head Start staff, partners, certain contractors, and volunteers.
These new directives have been met with confusion and frustration from Kentucky’s 28 Head Start grantees which operate over 1,100 Head Start classrooms serving nearly 18,000 children throughout the Commonwealth.
The overall goal of these new mandates is laudable — protecting children, staff, families, and communities. However, the unintended real-world consequences end up being harmful to the mission of Head Start and will have negative impacts on some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable populations.
1) Head Start programs are understaffed and may have to shutter. During much of the COVID-19 pandemic, the majority of Kentucky’s Head Start centers were closed and services moved to virtual/home-based learning. As a result, programs lost staff to other job opportunities or to stay home with their own children. Staffing levels have not yet returned to pre-pandemic levels and Kentucky’s Head Start programs currently report staffing to be 80-85% of that needed for full operations.
A recent study conducted by the Kentucky Head Start Association (KHSA) indicated that the new vaccine requirement and its Jan. 31, 2022 deadline will likely contribute to additional resignations and terminations with Head Start programs expecting to lose an additional 20-30% of their already depleted staff. If left unchanged, programs anticipate that 26 percent of Kentucky’s Head Start children and families will lose services after January due to staff shortages and the need to close classrooms.
2) One-size-fits-all does not work. During the darkest days of the COVID-19 pandemic, Head Start programs were afforded great latitude and flexibility to create and enforce safety standards that reflected the reality of the pandemic on the ground and the unique needs of communities. Our federal partners placed immense trust in local programs to act autonomously, albeit within a wide set of performance and safety standards. After operating for almost two years with these flexibilities, Head Start programs in Kentucky have hit their stride with increasing enrollment, lowering COVID-19 infections tied to Head Start classrooms and creating, due to the pandemic, many new and successful strategies to deploy early childhood education. The $185 million annual investment made into Kentucky’s Head Start programs is paying off.
The new masking and vaccine requirements are now eroding local control, creating confusion among staff and parents, and adding new administrative burdens to already overtaxed educators. While the new requirements dictate that Head Start programs must comply with the masking and vaccine standards, virtually no guidance has been provided to programs as to how they are to comply. How are vaccination records to be gathered and maintained confidentially? How are medical and/or religious exemptions to be handled? What types of COVID-19 testing are allowed? Who pays for testing? For masks? From which budget and for how long? Questions are met with few answers and Head Start programs have been left to navigate these concerns alone.
3) School district partners are questioning their Head Start relationships. Head Start programs do not operate in a vacuum and are instead a cohesive part of every community’s educational system. Positive school district partnerships improve the availability, quality, and delivery of services for children and their families; support school readiness and success as children move into kindergarten; provide unique and non-duplicative services such as transportation and facilities; and coordinate critical services for disabled children under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA).
The new requirements have created a strain on this crucial Head Start and school district relationship. While Kentucky has sought to empower local districts to make their own rules regarding COVID-19 precautions, the new masking and vaccine requirements leave little room for negotiation with partners. KHSA’s study of Head Start grantees indicated that half (50.82%) of Kentucky’s school district partners were not planning to comply with the Head Start vaccine directive and that an identical number of districts were planning to reevaluate their Head Start relationships when agreements come up for renewal.
4) Parents are removing their children from Head Start. During a time when Head Start programs should be enrolling more children and supporting parents as they return to the workplace, programs in Kentucky are experiencing the opposite with many reporting that parents are removing their children from programs due to concerns over the masking requirement. With no formal deadline or expiration date for the masking and vaccine mandates, programs are expected to comply for the foreseeable future. As a result, those children and families that need Head Start the most may very well go the longest without critical services.
Since its creation in 1965, Head Start has been at the forefront of early childhood education. During this time more than 36 million students have passed through Head Start classrooms nationally. As one of the original targets of the program, Kentucky has been a leader in Head Start innovation, in positive community/education partnerships and in building generations of school-ready children, and career-ready parents and families.
The new federal masking and vaccine requirements placed on Head Start — as well-intentioned as they may be — will result in a perfect storm for Kentucky’s Head Start programs: fewer students enrolled, fewer parents able to work or return to work, fewer families receiving critical social services, fewer early childhood educators, fewer engagements with local school districts and ultimately fewer children prepared for school and for life.
To be clear, this is not — and should not be — a partisan political issue. Rather, we must ensure that the provision of Head Start services to Kentucky’s most vulnerable populations continues without interference.
JOHN MOUNTJOY is executive director/CEO of the Kentucky Head Start Association — the statewide association championing Head Start programs through a common vision, a united voice, and shared expertise to serve Kentucky’s most vulnerable children and their families.