The Office of Head Start (OHS), the federal program within the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) that provides preschool and child care services to low-income families, announced today that it will soon be dropping its universal masking rule for its grant recipients.
In a statement provided to The Hill, an HHS spokesperson said, “Today, OHS notified programs that, in the near future, it intends to publish a final rule that will formally remove the requirement for universal masking in Head Start programs for all individuals ages 2 and older, which will align Head Start program masking requirements more closely with the updated CDC guidance.”
A specific date was not provided on when the mask mandate for Head Start programs would formally be dropped. The finalized rule is expected to be issued soon, sometime in the coming weeks, according to an HHS representative.
This decision comes about a month after the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) issued more lenient COVID-19 guidance regarding several mitigation methods such as masking and quarantining.
However, children and teachers at Head Start programs have still been required to adhere to mandatory mask-wearing. This is despite the updated CDC guidance that stated masks should mainly be considered in high-risk areas or for students who are immunocompromised.
Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association (NHSA), said his organization was not aware of this upcoming rule change until today. Sheridan said the NHSA had not been given any indication by federal authorities on what OHS would be deciding.
“All in all, we’re pleased to see this. We’ve been really pushing and advocating for some clarity on the masking and vaccine interim final rule for several months now. And so we’re very pleased that it’s being updated,” said Sheridan.
OHS, HHS and the Administration for Children and Families (ACF) issued an interim rule last November for the Head Start program requiring universal masking for everyone two years of age and older as well as COVID-19 vaccinations for staff members and weekly testing for those who are exempted from being immunized.
The HHS spokesperson noted in their statement that compliance with this mask requirement has not been monitored since February of this year, when the CDC issued new recommendations based on community COVID-19 levels. The spokesperson said OHS plans to continue not monitoring for compliance in upcoming evaluation visits.
Sheridan told The Hill that despite the lack of monitoring, many Head Start locations continued to strictly abide by the mask mandate as it was the “rule of law” and a part of program performance standards. Sheridan said he expects centers will now update their individual policies to reflect what is best for their own communities.
This announcement comes just a week after The New York Times reported that the continued mask mandate at Head Start programs was making parents reluctant to send their children to these centers.
“I’m hopeful that this means that we’re going to be able to reach some of those families who really could benefit from Head Start services,” said Sheridan. “There will be a trust rebuilding that is going to have to take place and that’s something that I know our programs are excited to do and to put this behind us. And again, do what CDC recommends and make sure that kids and families stay safe.”
In their communication to Head Start grantees, OHS and ACF encouraged centers to “continue using a combination of tools to reduce COVID-19 risks,” pointing to the more recent CDC guidance.
In the Times report, HHS said in a statement that updating these rules was “a lengthy process.” An HHS representative told The Hill that OHS was in the final stages of this process when the Times reached out for comment.
— Updated at 3:23 p.m.