WASHINGTON, D.C. – In response to the Head Start Vaccine and Mask Interim Final Rule with Comments (IFC) and as part of our mission to ensure children do not lose access to critical Head Start services due the IFC, NHSA filed comments with the Federal Register on December 27, 2021. The National Indian Head Start Directors Association (NIHSDA), ten regional associations, and 48 state associations joining as co-signers.
“We acknowledge the critical role of face masks and vaccinations in reducing the spread of COVID-19 in early care and educational settings. We further acknowledge the elimination of COVID-19 is of paramount importance and would like to see all Head Start staff vaccinated. That said, we remain deeply concerned that, if the IFC is made final immediately, thousands of children will lose access to life-changing Head Start and Early Head Start services,” said NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci. “Head Start programs need prompt clarification, detailed guidance, and clear flexibility to effectively implement and enforce the mask and vaccine mandates contained in the IFC. Our comments seek to balance the absolute imperative of widespread vaccination with the reality of local differences in which various Head Start programs are able to meet the IFC mandates.”
The IFC proposes adding new mask and vaccine requirements to the Head Start Program Performance Standards to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Shortly after the IFC was announced, NHSA sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra, outlining the IFC’s potential impact.
In addition, a multistate lawsuit was filed. While the lawsuit cites an NHSA field survey, NHSA did not play a direct role in the filing. NHSA administers surveys of the field on a regular basis on a wide variety of topics, from trends in children’s access to healthcare to workforce shortages. As a result, two separate federal court injunctions have temporarily blocked the Administration’s Head Start vaccine and masking mandate in 25 states. On December 31, U.S. Northern District Court of Texas Judge James Hendrix sided with the State of Texas and the Lubbock Independent School District in their suit against Secretary Becerra and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. Then, on January 1, U.S. District Court for Western Louisiana Judge Terry Doughty sided with the 24 plaintiff states in Louisiana v. Becerra. Both judges stopped short of issuing a national order against imposition of the mandate. As each ruling is preliminary, enforcement of the mandate will be temporarily delayed until the courts have an opportunity to decide on the merits of the cases. Head Start, Early Head Start, and Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant recipients in these 25 states are not required to comply with the IFC pending future developments in the litigation.
“A final rule must acknowledge the realities facing Head Start agencies and their partners by allowing either specific, finite waivers or locally designed solutions based on local data that balance safety with local circumstances and realities that enable children to retain access to transformative services,” said Vinci.
The National Head Start Association is a not-for-profit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in school and in life. The opportunities offered by Head Start lead to healthier, empowered children and families, and stronger, more vibrant communities. NHSA is the voice for more than 1 million children, 270,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grantees in the United States. Visit nhsa.org and follow @NatlHeadStart for more information.