By Dana Goldstein
The Biden administration has taken credit for a relative return to normalcy in schools over the last year of the coronavirus pandemic. But in one of the few education programs the federal government directly oversees — Head Start preschools and child care centers for low-income families — mandatory masking rules are still on the books for teachers and children as young as 2.
That requirement is out of line with current guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, released last month, which recommend universal masking only if there is a high community transmission rate. The vast majority of schools and day care centers have made masks optional, even in the most virus-cautious regions on the country.
The strict Head Start guidelines were established in November during the surge in delta variant infections, and they remain in place in half the states, including those throughout the Northeast and on the West Coast. In addition to universal masking, they require that Head Start staff members be vaccinated.
A group of conservative states, including Texas and Florida, sued to prevent the rules from taking effect, and federal courts imposed an injunction on the guidelines in those states. Now, the masking and vaccine requirements are a point of contention for local Head Start centers, complicating both enrollment and hiring, program directors said. Many parents don’t want their young children to be masked, worried that masking could hinder socialization and language development. And their older children are now able to attend schools without any face coverings.
“Head Start programs have been short-circuited,” said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, a trade group. “This mandate on masking and vaccines has hurt a lot of programs. It is more of a crisis that is now feeling like a looming catastrophe.”
In a written statement, the Department of Health and Human Services, which oversees Head Start, acknowledged that the current guidelines contradict those of the CDC but said that centers are not being checked for compliance on masking. Updating the official rules is “a lengthy process,” the statement said, which would take into consideration the CDC’s evolving recommendations, the recent availability of vaccinations for children as young as 6 months and over 2,700 public comments.
The struggle to mask young children became clear at a family orientation meeting this month at a Head Start center run by Acelero Learning in Perth Amboy, New Jersey.
Silas, a 3-year-old with big, round eyes and a buzz cut, has spent the pandemic at home, and he was pumped for the new adventure of pre-K. His surgical mask was no match for his enthusiasm — even though his grandmother, Olga Jimenez, reached over repeatedly to tug it over his mouth and nose.
When he spied the play kitchen, the battle was all but lost. Silas bounded over, mask dangling. Soon, a plastic chicken wing was in his mouth, and he was passing it back and forth to three other girls and boys.
Jimenez sighed and said that she would prefer Silas to go to school without a mask.
Some parents have academic concerns — even if masking can be mastered. Melissa Ruiz’s two children, Milani, 4, and Gabriel, 3, wore their face coverings like a second skin as they played with blocks and dolls.
Both were enrolled in the center last year and are accustomed to the routine, which their mother supports. But Ruiz said she wished Milani and Gabriel could see the full faces of their teachers during lessons.
Masks can make it more challenging for some children to develop early speech and reading skills, which are learned, in part, by observing mouths in movement, according to research.
And while masks, properly worn, do offer virus protection, young children tend not to be severely affected by the coronavirus, even when unvaccinated.
For many Head Start centers, the masking and vaccine rules make a difficult situation even more difficult.
A May survey of the National Head Start Association’s members found that the average center had 30% of its staff positions unfilled. Last year, about 745,000 children and babies were enrolled in Head Start and Early Head Start, down from 970,000 before the pandemic, according to federal data compiled by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
The causes of staff shortages and enrollment declines are complex. Many Head Start positions pay the minimum wage or just above, and workers can often earn more in retail or food services while being subjected to fewer virus restrictions.
Vaccinations may also be an issue. Eleven states have mandated vaccinations for teachers. But some states, including New Jersey, have relaxed those rules — presenting Head Starts with more competition for staff members who are qualified in early education, program directors said.
When Head Start centers cannot hire enough teachers, they often close entire classrooms, leaving families on a waiting list. And some parents remain hesitant to send young children to school, especially if it means they will be masked, program directors said.
Even though the federal government has said it will not “monitor” the Head Start masking rule, centers across the country have struggled to interpret what that means in practice.
Program directors described a culture of compliance within Head Start that leaves them, they said, with little choice but to follow the guidelines strictly.
“We always choose to follow the most stringent” requirements on the books, said Amanda Worth-Colón, who works for Acelero Learning, overseeing several Head Start programs in New Jersey.