NHSA Sounds Alarm to Secretary Becerra on Vaccine and Mask Mandate

WASHINGTON, D.C. – As part of our response to the Head Start Vaccine and Mask Interim Final Rule with Comments (IFC), NHSA sent a letter to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra with results from NHSA’s recent field survey and webinar, which outline the potential impact of the IFC.

The IFC proposes adding new provisions to the Head Start Program Performance Standards to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. But NHSA’s survey results indicated that the new rule could lead to Head Start programs losing between 46,614 and 72,422—or 18% to 26%—of all staff and the closing of over 1,300 Head Start classrooms.

“For months and months, programs have been short-circuited by the acute labor shortage. Since the fall, it has been a crisis. Now it is a looming catastrophe” said NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci. “This operational change hits programs where they currently hurt the most. Without additional flexibility, the fallout from the interim rule will have a long tail, derailing programs’ ability to recruit staff and, most importantly, serve children.”

NHSA cited the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Report underscoring the need for and benefits from flexibility in Head Start classrooms in dealing with COVID-19: “Head Start and Early Head Start programs successfully implemented CDC-recommended mitigation strategies and applied other innovative approaches to limit SARS-CoV-2 transmission among children, teachers, and other staff members by allowing maximum program flexibility…”

On December 10, 2021, NHSA also hosted a webinar with over 520 grant recipients and program administrators who shared how programs across the country are already wrestling with how to comply with differing vaccine and mask rules and conflicting state and federal mandates. Head Start programs are losing valuable collaboration agreements with school districts. One director shared that they stand to drop 75% of their Head Start slots due to school districts refusing to require the vaccine. We heard the same thing from another program in a different state where 80% of the slots are school partner slots, which would have to stop immediately once the vaccine mandate goes into effect.

Similarly, many programs depend on the school districts for busing. Because transportation personnel appear to be the least vaccinated group, many programs are at risk of closing because the children they serve will lose the transportation on which they rely to get to and from their program.

“Head Start’s strength has come from the flexibility of local practices that enables programs to meet community and family needs. We must move forward in a way that maintains this proven precedent,” urged Vinci in the letter to the Secretary.

“We must ensure children don’t lose access to crucial services because of a mandate that is impossible to operationalize,” she added.

NHSA plans to finalize and submit comments on the IFC on Thursday, December 23.

About NHSA

The National Head Start Association is 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 840,000 children and families from systemically underserved populations, 250,000 staff, and 1,600 Head Start grant recipients. ••• Media Contact: Emily Wagner, Director of Communications, media@nhsa.org

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