By STEVEN BITTENBENDER
THE CENTER SQUARE CONTRIBUTOR
(The Center Square) — Kentucky Attorney General Daniel Cameron joined colleagues from 23 other states to file a lawsuit last week against the Biden administration over its COVID-19 mandates for Head Start.
Head Start is an early childhood education initiative operated by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) for lower-income families. It includes several programs beyond education, including providing access to medical and dental exams and connecting families with vital community resources.
On Nov. 29, HHS announced all Head Start staffers, volunteers and contractors working with kids would need to be fully vaccinated by Jan. 31. The mandate does allow Head Start programs to grant exemptions for medical or religious reasons. Those exempted – and only those exempted – would then need to take a COVID-19 test weekly.
At the same time, HHS announced a mask mandate would take effect immediately for all involved in the program age 2 and older.
In Kentucky, more than 17,500 kids under age 5 are enrolled in one of the state’s 28 Head Start programs. According to a statement from Cameron, he said about 17% of program staffers would face termination for not complying with the HHS mandate.
“With only 54% of the Kentucky population vaccinated and no state or school vaccination mandates, the Head Start Mandate will cause staffing shortages at Head Start Programs in Kentucky and the loss of critical services to some of Kentucky’s most vulnerable citizens, particularly in rural areas where rates are lower than the state average,” the complaint, which was filed in a federal district court in Louisiana states.
Cameron said families are worried about what such a drastic reduction in workers would do to the program.
Kentucky’s public school systems could also be impacted by the mandates. According to the lawsuit, the state’s Head Start programs enact utilization agreements with districts every year. Those agreements help avoid preschool services from becoming duplicated and allow for more kids to be served.
The suit states about half of Kentucky’s school districts would be expected to not follow the vaccine mandate. In addition, more than a third of the districts would pull out of their agreements with Head Start grantors. That would lead to the disruption or termination of many programs statewide.
In fiscal year 2021, Kentucky received $185.8 million in federal funding for Head Start programs. The complaint states that losing those funds could put more pressure on the state to identify funding for preschool programs.
The vaccines aren’t the only issue in the lawsuit. It also says the masking policies must be struck down as not every school district requires its students to wear masks.
“These public schools anticipate that the Head Start Mandate will mean that they will have to segregate the low-income students and force them to wear masks while the other students are allowed to breathe freely,” the complaint states.
In addition to the lawsuit, the attorneys general on Monday also filed for a temporary injunction seeking to block the Head Start mandates from taking effect.
Cameron is confident they will prevail in the case.
“We’ve challenged the Biden Administration’s mandates for federal contractors, private businesses, and healthcare workers in court, and we believe that the Head Start mandate suffers from the same legal flaws as those mandates,” he said.