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Awkward: Florida’s Head Start programs must juggle competing pandemic rules

The feds require masks while the state outlaws mandates. That puts Head Start operators in the middle.
Head Start operators find themselves caught between conflicting federal and state pandemic rules.
Head Start operators find themselves caught between conflicting federal and state pandemic rules. [ Pasco County Schools ]
Published Dec. 8, 2021|Updated Dec. 12, 2021

Florida school districts and other organizations that operate Head Start children’s programs have been caught in the crossfire as the state and federal governments continue to set conflicting rules about masks and vaccinations.

Citing an ongoing need to stem the spread of COVID-19 variants, the federal Department of Health and Human Services issued a rule at the end of November that requires anyone age 2 or older to wear masks indoors, where the early education program is provided. The requirement took effect immediately.

The agency also mandated that all Head Start staff, contractors and volunteers get vaccinated against the coronavirus by the end of January, or receive an exemption that would allow for regular virus testing.

“Being fully vaccinated for COVID-19 and using a mask are two of the most effective mitigation strategies available to reduce transmission” of the virus, the department stated in its notice of rule-making.

The state of Florida, however, sees things differently. During its November special session, the Legislature approved measures to forbid schools from passing mask mandates and local governments from imposing vaccine requirements. Gov. Ron DeSantis quickly signed those bills into law.

The conflicting directives have Head Start providers a bit nervous.

On the one hand, they don’t want to jeopardize their federally funded educational services to needy youngsters. The program promotes school readiness for children up to age 5 from low-income families.

The Pasco County school district has a five-year, $35 million Head Start grant that serves nearly 800 children and employs about 180 staff. The Hillsborough County school district’s share of a county government Head Start grant helps just over 1,400 youngsters, employing nearly 225 educators and other workers.

In Pinellas County, Head Start is offered through Lutheran Services Florida, with limited school presence of six classrooms on three campuses.

At the same time, these organizations don’t want to violate state law. The state recently withheld some funding from the Alachua and Broward county school districts for implementing strict mask mandates despite a Department of Health rule barring such actions.

Nearly a dozen other districts including Hillsborough were threatened with similar action until they backed off their policies.

Florida Department of Education spokesperson Jared Ochs said state officials are looking into how they will deal with violations if they arise, but no decisions had been reached as of early this week.

“Threading a needle is a good way to put it,” said Vicki Wolin, Pasco schools director of early childhood programs. “We’re not going to ignore state law or performance standards.”

Shortly after receiving notification of the new rule, the Pasco district sent letters to participating families alerting them of the federal mask requirement and the state law permitting them to opt out. It also sent a survey to employees asking them about their vaccination status and plans, noting the federal expectation.

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“At this time no employment action is being taken against any staff member, regardless of their response to this survey,” superintendent Kurt Browning told School Board members in an email update.

Wolin explained that her plan is to consider the latest mandate as one of many federal performance standards that gets audited annually. Eventually, she said, the district will have a chance to provide proof of its effort to comply as well as explanations of any obstacles.

The federal auditors will have to determine next steps if the district is found out of compliance.

Hillsborough Head Start director Jacquelyn Jenkins said her department will “closely monitor and assess” the federal rule and the state-level expectations as officials determine the next course of action. She noted continued funding of the $30 million grant rests in the balance.

“We are working to comply with all federal and state requirements in collaboration with our legal team,” Hillsborough school district spokesperson Tanya Arja added.

Lutheran Services Florida could not be reached.

Earlier in the pandemic, the federal Department of Health and Human Services had left the decision on vaccinations up to individual Head Start locations.

“However, despite all of these efforts, uptake of vaccination among Head Start staff has not been as robust as hoped for and has been insufficient to create a safe environment for children and families,” the agency stated in its rule justification.

It did not respond to inquiries seeking information about how it will deal with Florida Head Start providers following state law. In the fall, the Biden administration created a new grant program to support school districts that the state penalized financially over its masking rules.

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