Summary of Vaccine and Mask Requirements to Mitigate the Spread of COVID-19 in Head Start Programs

This briefing describes the requirements announced in the Interim Final Rule with Comment Period (IFC) and how they will help mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Check out the FAQs to learn more about mask and vaccine requirements for Head Start programs and read the Preamble to understand more about the data and reasoning behind the requirements.

Background

Vaccination and masking are essential components necessary to returning to full comprehensive Head Start services.

On Sept. 9, 2021, Path Out of the Pandemic: President Biden's COVID-19 Action Plan was released. Under the Action Plan, the Biden-Harris administration required the nearly 300,000 staff at Head Start programs across the country to be vaccinated. President Biden also called on state governors to require vaccinations for all teachers and school staff, as now required in federally-funded schools.

Through this IFC, the Office of Head Start (OHS) is exercising its legal authority to add a mask and vaccine requirement for grant recipient staff to the Head Start Program Performance Standards (HSPPS).

Mask Requirement

Universal masking is required for all individuals 2 years of age and older when:

  • Indoors in a setting when Head Start services are provided.
  • Two or more individuals are in a vehicle owned, leased, or arranged by the Head Start program.
  • For those who are not fully vaccinated, outdoors in crowded settings or during activities that involve sustained close contact with other people. OHS notes that being outdoors with children inherently includes sustained close contact for the purposes of caring for and supervising children.

Exceptions

  • Children and adults when they are either eating or drinking.
  • Children when they are napping.
  • The narrow subset of individuals who cannot safely wear a mask because of a disability as defined by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), consistent with U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) guidance on disability exemptions.
  • When a child's health care provider advises an alternative face covering to accommodate the child's special health care needs.

Timeline – This requirement is effective immediately upon publication of the IFC on Nov. 30, 2021.

Vaccine Requirement

Full vaccination against COVID 19 is required for:

  • All staff (as defined in Terms, 45 CFR §1305.2 [Staff])
  • Those contractors whose activities involve contact with or providing direct services to children and families
  • Volunteers who are in classrooms or working directly with children other than their own

Consistent with CDC's current definition, people are considered fully vaccinated:

  • 14 days after their second dose in a two-dose series, such as the Pfizer or Moderna vaccines
  • 14 days after a single-dose vaccine, such as Johnson & Johnson's Janssen vaccine

Timeline

  • Individuals are required to be vaccinated by Jan. 31, 2022. This means staff, certain contractors, and volunteers must have their second dose in a two-dose series or first in a single-dose by Jan. 31, 2022.
  • It takes time to get vaccinated. To be vaccinated by Jan. 31, 2022, individuals must begin receiving COVID-19 vaccination no later than:
    • Jan. 3: First-dose (Moderna)
    • Jan. 10: First-dose (Pfizer-BioNTech)
    • Jan. 31: Second-dose (Moderna and Pfizer-BioNTech)
    • Jan. 31: Single-dose (Johnson & Johnson)

For purposes of this regulation, staff, certain contractors, and volunteers will meet the requirement even if they have not yet completed the 14-day waiting period required for full vaccination by Jan. 31. This timing flexibility applies only to the initial implementation of this IFC and has no bearing on ongoing compliance.

Exemptions

  • Exemptions may be granted for people who request and receive an exemption from vaccination because of a:
    • Medical condition, or medical necessity requires a delay in vaccination, as documented by a licensed medical practitioner (as a reasonable accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act)
    • Sincerely held religious belief, practice, or observance (established under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964)
  • It is the responsibility of Head Start programs to establish a process for reviewing and granting the exemptions (e.g., medical conditions, sincerely held religious beliefs).
  • Those who are granted an exemption for one of the reasons listed above are required to undergo at least weekly testing. Aside from those who are granted exemptions for one of the reasons above, there is no testing option as an alternative to the vaccine requirement.
  • Programs must develop and implement a written COVID-19 testing protocol for those granted vaccine exemptions. To develop of a COVID-19 testing protocol, programs should consult with their Health Services Advisory Committee (HSAC) and local public health officials, along with recommendations from their agency's legal counsel and Human Resources department.

Documentation – Programs are required to track and securely document the vaccination status of each staff member and vaccine exemption requests and outcomes. However, programs have the flexibility to use any appropriate tracking strategies.

Justification

Given that children under age 5 are too young to be vaccinated at this time, additional measures must be taken to reduce the spread of COVID-19, especially the more infectious Delta variant.

Reduced Transmission – These requirements will reduce the transmission of COVID-19 from staff to children and families. Reduced transmission:

  • Protects the health and safety of children, staff, and families
  • Prioritizes safe, sustained in-person early care and education for children — with all of its known benefits to children and families

Reducing Program Closures – Requiring staff to receive the vaccine and all persons over 2 years of age to wear masks is critical to reduce program closures due to COVID-19 exposures. Program closures impose hardship and create instability and stress for Head Start children and families. They disrupt children's opportunities for learning, socialization, nutrition, and continuity and routine. Program closures from COVID-19 exposures also impact the ability of Head Start families to work. Staff vaccination requirements may cause temporary program closure due to low availability of staff. However, the majority of Head Start children will benefit from the reduced program closures due to COVID-19 exposures.

Protecting Families – Children and staff may return home to family members who are older or have underlying medical conditions that put them at greater risk for COVID-19-related morbidity and mortality. Many families of Head Start children and staff are members of minority communities who have been shown to be at increased risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2. There has been a disproportionate burden of COVID-19 deaths and lower vaccination rates among racial and ethnic minority groups. Requiring vaccination among Head Start staff is not only an issue of personal health, but also promotes public and community health and health equity for children and staff in Head Start programs.

Return to Full In-person Services – In May 2021, OHS outlined expectations that programs move toward fully in-person services as soon as possible and by January 2022, factoring in local health conditions. In light of the availability of the COVID-19 vaccine, and the requirement for programs to deliver fully in person services, these standards are essential to create the safest environment possible for staff, children, and families. Consistent with ACF-PI-HS-21-04 OHS Expectations for Head Start Programs in Program Year (PY) 2021–2022, programs should continue to work toward full enrollment and in-person services, contingent upon local health conditions, by January 2022.