Head Start never stops working for children and families, and neither should Congress

For 55 years, Head Start has stood by America’s children and families. Created as part of the War on Poverty, locally operated Head Start programs have prepared nearly 40 million children from at-risk backgrounds for success in school and life. Today, an unwavering bipartisan commitment from Congress enables Head Start programs across the nation to serve the educational, socio-emotional, health, and nutrition needs of more than 1 million children in safe, nurturing environments.

Fortunately, while COVID-19 has shut down many valuable forces in American life, it hasn’t stopped Head Start. In the months since the COVID-19 pandemic began spreading in the United States, Head Start staff have been working in overdrive to adapt their teaching strategies, sanitize classrooms, make necessary health-related adjustments to facilities, and provide access to quality online and other remote learning opportunities for children and families from at-risk backgrounds ― all while grappling with rising COVID-19 operational costs.

Head Start families are expressing relief that their programs have remained steadfast in their efforts to keep children healthy and prepare them for success in school and life. One Head Start parent in California shared that her program is “incorporating outdoor activity and keeping children on track. They are educating the children about why they cannot visit family and friends. They are supporting parents in managing working from home and helping our children learn at home. Our Head Start program has gone above and beyond in supporting our children.”

This fall, as more Head Start programs are engaged in reopening their classrooms safely, they are confronting the true cost of operating in the COVID-19 era. From PPE for children and staff to increased hours for janitorial staff to additional mental health services for children coping with this new trauma, Head Start programs are facing a funding shortfall that will soon impact the children and families they are supporting in navigating this crisis.

Since the start of COVID-19, Head Start programs have pivoted in countless innovative ways: conducting online classrooms, donning PPE and making home visits to check on children, erecting elaborate screening barriers and devising creative bus routes, arranging contactless health screenings and food drops — doing everything physically and financially possible to ensure children and families living on the margins aren’t pushed further to the edge. Head Start never stopped working.

That’s why Congress and the administration must not stop, either. They can start by making sure Head Start programs have the critical resources necessary to reopen classrooms safely. Based on extensive surveying of Head Start providers, the National Head Start Association estimates operational costs will increase by up to 20 percent this year as individual programs adapt and respond to the pandemic. That’s why the Head Start community has been advocating to Congress for at least $1.7 billion in emergency funding to keep up with COVID-19-related costs — PPE for teachers, IT upgrades to support virtual learning, facility adaptations, additional staff hours to meet smaller classroom ratios for social distancing, and many other needs.

Lack of emergency funding at this moment will ultimately weaken Head Start’s ability to ensure children are ready for kindergarten and life-long learning. It will hamstring Head Start’s proven model for supporting families as they navigate crises and climb their way out of poverty.

Failing to fund Head Start also makes no sense from an economic stimulus standpoint. The majority of Head Start parents are either working or in school themselves, and these families need reliable, high-quality care and early learning programs in order to meet their goals. Opening a 5th grade classroom while ignoring the needs of a Head Start classroom makes no sense for working parents. School for older children but not their younger siblings won’t help their parents go back to work or finish a degree. Sidelining parents will further hobble our economy as it struggles to recover.

The House of Representatives has shown they understand this reality and has included relief funding for Head Start in the modified HEROES Act that was released last month. Now, the Head Start community needs the Senate and the administration to truly be heroes and see this funding become law.

In thousands of communities nationwide, Head Start partners with children and families to realize their potential. Head Start’s collective voice is powerful, and it is calling out for help right now. Head Start won’t stop working for children and families across our country. We need Congress to get to work for these children and families, too.

Yasmina Vinci serves as the executive director of the National Head Start Association, a not-for-profit organization acting as the voice for more than 1 million children, 200,000 staff and 1,600 Head Start grantees in the United States.

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