Head Start, in Limbo Over Mask and Vaccine Mandates, Looks to Congress for Help

While the Senate has moved to eliminate COVID rules in the federal preschool program, Biden has threatened a veto

A photo of Head Start staff and children at the King Creek Children’s Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, planting trees during an Arbor Day event last year
Head Start staff and children at the King Creek Children’s Center in Hendersonville, North Carolina, planted trees during an Arbor Day event last year. (WNCSource Community Services)

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When the Biden administration issued a mask and COVID vaccine mandate for the federal Head Start program last fall, Olivia Coyne, past president of the Colorado Head Start Association, was relieved.

Delta was causing cases to spike, and the schools where many Head Start programs are housed typically had mask mandates in place. 

But in February, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention revised its guidance to reflect lower transmission rates. Mask rules for young children, the CDC said, should be the same as those for the general population.

Now Coyne, a Head Start director in the Boulder area, is confused. “Head Start feels like the lone place where masks are required,” she said. “For staff, it feels really out of context.”

Members of Congress, including several Democrats, agree.

Earlier this month, the Senate approved a resolution that would “disapprove” the rule, essentially wiping it off the books. Similar legislation was introduced last month in the House, but it’s unclear if action will be taken soon. The White House said President Joe Biden won’t sign it. Officials say the mandate — which even requires staff and children to wear masks outside — gives parents “additional confidence” that their children are safe and protects infants and toddlers in Early Head Start programs who can’t wear masks. It’s also necessary, they argue, because a vaccine for young children has yet to be approved.

“Parents of children under 5 are in a really difficult position right now. They don’t have the choice to vaccinate their children, so they are dependent on the adults who care for them to do everything they can to continue protecting them,” Sen. Patty Murray of Washington, a Democrat and chair of the education committee, said before the May 3 vote. 

She opposed the resolution, saying it would permanently hamstring the administration’s ability to mandate masks and vaccines in Head Start in the event of a new,dangerous variant or a future pandemic. Some school districts, in fact, have reinstated mask mandates or are strongly urging students to mask because cases are rising.

Once a vaccine is available for younger children she said it could make sense to revisit the rule, “but we are not there yet.”

Both Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech have asked the U.S. Food and Drug Administration to approve their vaccines for younger children. Reviews were scheduled for June, but the governors of Colorado and Massachusetts have urged the FDA to act sooner. 

South Dakota Republican Sen. John Thune, who sponsored the resolution, suggested that if Biden can end COVID restrictions on immigration along the southern border, he should do so for young children. 

“The scientific evidence for masking toddlers is shaky at best,” he said on the Senate floor, citing the World Health Organization recommendation against masking children under 6 and concerns that masks inhibit language and social skills. Children also face a lower risk of serious illness from COVID, studies show. 

Researchers, however, have found limited evidence that masks on preschoolers interfere with their development. 

Meanwhile, half the states don’t have to follow the rule because federal judges in two cases blocked it. That leaves the rest of the country in limbo.

“It’s messy, it’s tricky, and that’s why we go back to Head Start roots — locally driven with high standards,” said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, which represents both families and programs. The rule, he said, is making it hard to hire staff. “The administration knows this is something that needs to change.”

In December, the association filed comments asking for waivers from the rule or solutions that “balance safety with local circumstances.”

David White, CEO of WNCSource Community Services, a Head Start grantee serving four North Carolina counties in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains, estimates that his centers have lost about 25 of their 220 staff members because of the vaccine mandate. With early-childhood programs already coping with staff shortages, he’s concerned about having enough teachers this fall.

If the vaccine mandate makes it harder to attract and retain staff, and if it “means having closed classrooms because parents don’t like the mask mandate,” he said, “at some point it becomes counterproductive.”

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