Federal immunization mandate poses challenges for local Head Start programs

Federal immunization mandate poses challenges for local Head Start programs

By: David Forster

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) – The federal Head Start program has ordered any adult who interacts with a student in the program to be vaccinated against COVID-19 soon.

It got Heather Wolfe in big trouble. She oversees the Head Start programs in Meigs and Gallia counties.

Head Start offers free kindergarten to children from low-income families and also provides them with health services.

The Head Start programs in Meigs and Gallia are run by a combination of Wolfe’s own staff and staff from the school districts in those counties.

Wolfe can demand that his own staff, who are paid with Head Start dollars, be vaccinated. So far, about half of them are.

But after February 1, she said, “we cannot employ someone who is not vaccinated or who has no religious or medical exemption.”

At this point, she will need to ask those who are not vaccinated to resign or be fired, and then hire vaccinated people to replace them.

But Wolfe has no control over the school district employees.

Under state law, school districts could impose a vaccination warrant, but only for a fully federally approved vaccine, said Nicole Donovsky, a lawyer at Bricker and Eckler in Columbus specializing in the law of the ‘education. The only COVID-19 vaccine that meets this requirement to date is the Pfizer vaccine.

None of the school districts have such a mandate. And without a warrant, districts cannot force employees to disclose their immunization status.

WOUB has contacted the superintendents of the five school districts in Meigs and Gallia counties to see if they had estimates of the percentage of their employees who are vaccinated.

A superintendent has estimated that at least 70 percent of his total staff are vaccinated. Another said he believed about 75 percent of his staff who interacted with Head Start students were vaccinated. Superintendents from two districts said they had no estimates to share. A superintendent did not respond at the time this story was posted.

Risky collaborations

It’s a problem for Wolfe. Her Head Start students attend class with the other preschoolers in the districts. They interact with district staff, including teachers and their assistants, cafeteria workers, and bus drivers.

Wolfe said this collaboration was intentional. “We wanted to remove the stigma from Head Start,” she said. Thus, Head Start children attend the same classrooms as children whose parents pay their school fees.

This blended approach has received national recognition from the Head Start organization, Wolfe said. But now, with the vaccination mandate, that presents a challenge.

If she can’t find enough immunized district staff to help manage the program, said Wolfe, “we risk losing our collaborations with school districts. We risk losing our transportation with school districts.

That would leave him with two options. She could switch to a virtual model, which she did last year when the pandemic forced Ohio school districts to move away. This is not ideal for Head Start children, who may need more intensive and hands-on interaction with teachers and support staff.

Or she could leave the kids in the classroom but take them out of the Head Start program. She said some districts are willing to keep students in class even though Head Start can no longer pay them.

“We are going to lose these children,” she said, “but the districts care so much about preschool that they are going to get them back. “

But kids will likely miss out on some of the extra services that Head Start provides.

Some possible exceptions

Chris DeLamatre doesn’t face the same tough decisions Wolfe may soon have to make.

She oversees the Head Start programs for the counties of Athens, Hocking and Perry. These programs are managed by Hocking Athens Perry Community Action, better known as HAPCAP.

HAPCAP had already imposed a vaccination mandate for employees in all of its programs by the time the Head Start mandate arrived. DeLamatre said all of its Head Start staff are vaccinated except for a few people who have medical or religious exemption and are tested weekly.

And HAPCAP does not work with school districts. It runs its Head Start programs with its own staff in its own classrooms.

Yet the federal immunization mandate may present certain challenges to DeLamatre. The Head Start program requires that students who need it receive certain mental and physical health services.

“It could be physical therapy, it could be speech therapy… those kinds of extra services that a child might need to help them be successful in the Head Start environment, but also when they go to public school,” she declared.

These services are often provided by people who are not employees of Head Start. But under the terms of the federal mandate, they should be vaccinated because they interact with children.

DeLamatre said Head Start officials are considering making an exception to the mandate of these external providers because they don’t want children potentially missing out on these required support services.

But such an exception would not apply to volunteer services provided by local head start programs.

“If we wanted someone to come and do a music program every week, that’s not a mandatory service, so that person absolutely should be vaccinated,” DeLamatre said.

Wolfe faces the same problem. She brings in volunteers from local libraries to preschool classes. These volunteers will now need to be vaccinated.

Other examples are not so clear. The mandate states that anyone who interacts with children should be immunized. What about a cafeteria worker who crosses paths with students, but that interaction might only last a few seconds. Is this sufficient interaction to fall within the mandate?

The Head Start office responded well to specific clarifying questions like these, Wolfe said. But it’s a case-by-case situation.

“So some of these questions have not been asked and have not yet been answered,” she said.

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