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Child Care for Essential Workers During the Coronavirus Pandemic? Not From Head Start.

The federal child care program is hamstrung under current law.

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Editor’s Note: This post was updated on April 28, 2020, based on new information provided by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

Governors and other officials in over 20 states have ordered that child care facilities must remain open for essential employees responding to the coronavirus pandemic. But guaranteeing child care for emergency workers—such as those who work in health care, law enforcement, and grocery stores—is difficult in a fragmented early-care “system” composed mostly of small businesses already operating on razor-thin margins.

One missing option right now is the vast majority of the nation’s approximately 20,800 Head Start and Early Head Start centers. About 19,000 of those centers — or more than 90% — are currently closed due to COVID-19.

Unfortunately, even under these unprecedented emergency circumstances, it is unclear whether Head Start centers will be able to open their doors to provide child care for essential workers. Why not? The answer has to do with strict federal guidelines about who can receive Head Start services.

(On April 23, those federal guidelines were updated, but questions remain about the allowable uses of existing federal funds for Head Start. See details below.)

For reporters covering child care and the coronavirus, there’s more than a few stories that can come out of contacting your local Head Start center. Here are a few ideas, along with a brief primer on the legal constraints that limit Head Start’s ability to extend child care during the pandemic.

Legal Limits on Head Start Resources

Head Start and Early Head Start—the federal child care programs for young children and babies in poverty—provide care for approximately 1 million of the nearly 12 million U.S. children under age 5 that have a primary care arrangement. Head Start centers are located in all 50 states, all U.S. territories, and the District of Columbia. (A point of comparison: KinderCare, the nation’s largest child care chain operator, has over 1,500 locations in 40 states.)

With lights out at over 90% of Head Start facilities, many independent Head Start providers, eager to meet the child care needs of emergency workers, have submitted inquiries to the federal Head Start office. They are seeking permission to temporarily repurpose their facilities to provide such care.

But in a March 24 email response to these inquiries, U.S. Office of Head Start (OHS) director Deborah Bergeron explained that Head Start funds cannot be used to support any non-Head Start activities, including temporarily repurposing Head Start centers for emergency child care for essential workers. Bergeron also said that while Head Start workers are allowed to offer child care to emergency workers, they cannot do so during their regular shift hours, even if their center is closed.

What’s behind these tight restrictions? The answer is federal law—specifically, the Head Start Act, last reauthorized in 2007, which prohibits providers from spending federal Head Start dollars for services to families that are ineligible. Families eligible for Head Start programming and services include those with incomes below the poverty guidelines set by HHS, those receiving public assistance for food or income, or those who are homeless. Even if they were to go through the Head Start application process, children from families of essential workers such as doctors or nurses are unlikely to meet HHS eligibility requirements.

Heavy consequences exist for unauthorized use of Head Start dollars. Under federal law, if a child care center misuses Head Start funds, it can lose its legal status and permits and be debarred from receiving federal grants or contracts. Grantees that use resources to provide care for the children of frontline workers would be jeopardizing their funding and licensure status.

There’s a Workaround

It’s clear from the OHS memo that many Head Start employees are seeking increased flexibility to serve their communities’ needs during this time. In her March 24 email, Bergeron did offer a potential workaround that would allow shuttered Head Start facilities to be re-opened for children of essential workers.

Worded in a cautious tone, Bergeron explained that, to offer child care to first responders, grantees may temporarily lease Head Start space to another outside entity. The National Head Start Association, the nonprofit member organization for Head Start providers, developed a template lease agreement for Head Start providers to use.

In an April 1 follow-up email, Bergeron explained that the OHS directives are not “intended to hinder agency or staff efforts to help others in their community.”

“Supporting our Head Start families, as always, is our first priority,” said Bergeron.

Eva Pignotti, who runs a large Head Start and Early Head Start Center in Salem, Oregon, said that the state’s process for re-opening was “relatively simple.” Pignotti applied for a special emergency child care license through Oregon’s Early Learning Division’s Office of Child Care. The hardest part, Pignotti said, “was making connections with the eligible families who needed child care. We ended up recruiting for ourselves instead of waiting for the state to send our information to 211 [Oregon’s social services referral phone line] and for 211 to refer families.” (See Whitney Woodworth’s reporting on Pignotti’s reopening in the Salem Statesman Journal.)

On April 23, the Office of Head Start issued another memo containing new guidance saying that Head Start grantees may use existing funds to provide emergency child care to essential personnel, so long as “enrolled children benefit from those services.” A department spokesperson did not immediately respond to clarify exactly what “those services” includes, and whether the requirement for temporary leasing is still required if providers reopen to offer emergency child care alongside their normal clientele.

Resources, Ideas to Cover COVID-19 Child Care Story

Mandatory school closures are perhaps the biggest story of COVID-19 for reporters on the education beat. But on the early ed beat, the story is different. Currently, non-Head Start child care centers and early-learning facilities are still open in every state except Rhode Island. The majority of states have left the decision to close up to individual child care providers. Many providers in the child care marketplace have shuttered due to financial, health, or safety reasons—and without immediate federal assistance, many more are likely to follow.

But even as over 90% of Head Start locations are closed, Head Start workers—who are guaranteed compensation through June—are engaging with families by providing meals, delivering remote services, developing at-home lesson plans for parents, and volunteering in their communities.

As the pandemic unfolds, and when it (eventually) ends, reporters may find value in covering how local Head Start providers uniquely adapt, adjust, and advocate to serve their communities. Here are a few ideas to get started:

  • What’s happening in your community? Talk to Head Start employees and ask them about their decision to close (or, in the rare case, to stay open). To find the nearest Head Start center near you, start here.
  • Connect with advocacy organizations that work with Head Start providers, such as the National Head Start AssociationChild Care Aware, and the National Association for the Education of Young Children. These organizations have local grassroots chapters that include parents as well as child care workers.
  • Interview (by phone or video chat) a few Head Start employees who are working. Get them to describe a typical day right now. Are they serving meals? Scheduling virtual home visits? How have they been handling the new challenges?
  • If a Head Start center does re-open, how are they recruiting families? Is there an organized system for finding essential workers in need of child care, or are Head Start employees tasked with making connections?
  • Get familiar with the research. There have been many studies of Head Start programs evaluating long-term impacts, including following students into adulthood to gauge whether they are more likely to enroll in college, and even how their own parenting practices might be influenced. Have they received any additional training or professional development to work with children who might be experiencing unusual levels of stress?