Federal vaccination mandate poses challenges for local Head Start programs

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

This has put Heather Wolfe in a bit of a pickle. She oversees the Head Start programs in Meigs and Gallia counties.

Head Start offers free preschool for children in low-income families and also provides them with health care 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 require that her own staff, who are paid with Head Start dollars, get vaccinated. So far about half of them are.

But after Feb. 1, she said, “we cannot employ someone who is not vaccinated or does not have a religious or medical exemption.”

At that point, she will have 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 school district employees.

Under state law, school districts could impose a vaccination mandate, but only for a vaccine that has full federal approval, said Nicole Donovsky, a lawyer with Bricker and Eckler in Columbus who specializes in education law. The only COVID-19 vaccine that meets this requirement so far is the Pfizer vaccine.

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

WOUB reached out to 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.

One superintendent estimated that at least 70 percent of his total staff are vaccinated. Another said he believes about 75 percent of his staff who interact with Head Start students are vaccinated. Superintendents at two districts said they did not have any estimates to share. One superintendent did not respond by the time this story was published.

Collaborations at risk

This is a problem for Wolfe. Her Head Start students go to class with the other preschoolers in the districts. They interact with staff from the districts, including teachers and their assistants, cafeteria workers and bus drivers.

Wolfe said this collaboration was by design. “We wanted to remove the stigma of Head Start,” she said. So the Head Start children attend the same classrooms as children whose parents pay for their tuition.

This blended approach has received national recognition from the Head Start organization, Wolfe said. But now with the vaccination mandate, it’s presenting a challenge. 

If she cannot find enough vaccinated district staff to help run the program, Wolfe said, “we’re in jeopardy of losing our collaborations with the school districts. We’re in jeopardy of losing our transportation with the school districts.”

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

Or she could leave the children in the classroom but pull them out of the Head Start program. She said some districts are willing to keep the students in the classroom even if Head Start can no longer pay for them.

“We will lose those children,” she said, “but the districts care so much about preschool that they will pick them up.”

But the children will likely miss out on some of the additional services Head Start provides.

Some exceptions possible

Chris DeLamatre is not facing the same tough decisions that Wolfe may soon have to make.

She oversees the Head Start programs for Athens, Hocking and Perry counties. These programs are run 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 came along. DeLamatre said that all of her Head Start staff are vaccinated with the exception of a couple of people who have a medical or religious exemption and are tested weekly.

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

Still, the federal vaccination mandate may present DeLamatre with some challenges. The Head Start program requires that students who need them are provided with certain mental and physical health services.

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

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

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

But such an exception would not apply to any voluntary services local Head Start programs are providing.

“If we wanted to have somebody come in and provide a music program every week, that is not a mandated service, so that person would absolutely have to be vaccinated,” DeLamatre said.

Wolfe is facing the same issue. She has volunteers from local libraries come into the preschool classrooms. Those volunteers will now have to be vaccinated.

Other examples are not quite so clear cut. The mandate says anyone who interacts with the children must be vaccinated. What about a cafeteria worker who crosses paths with students, but that interaction might last for only a few seconds. Is that enough of an interaction to fall under the mandate?

The Head Start office has been good about answering specific clarifying questions like these, Wolfe said. But it’s a case-by-case situation.

“So some of those questions haven’t been asked and haven’t been answered yet,” she said.