A Socially Distant Birthday for Head Start

Blog Post
May 18, 2020

Today is Head Start’s 55th birthday, but there will be no in-person celebrations like those in past years. This year is different for all of us.

The federal program has changed in significant ways since it was first established under President Lyndon B. Johnson as an eight-week long summer program to prepare children from low-income families for kindergarten. Following research on early learning and child development, Head Start has grown to provide comprehensive services to over one million children from birth to age five and their families year-round. And, now, as our nation grapples with the novel coronavirus, Head Start is once again adapting to meet the needs of children and families.

With COVID-19 keeping most children at home, leaving parents without child care, and wreaking havoc on our economy, Head Start’s federal to local structure and strict guidelines can pose both challenges and opportunities.

Child care centers nationwide are in crisis. Program revenue is usually tied to child attendance (either from subsidies or parent tuition), and with attendance down, many providers cannot afford to pay their staff. As a federally-funded program, Head Start doesn’t rely on child attendance or parent fees, so Head Start programs aren’t facing payment freezes or permanent closures like other providers. Head Start programs can continue to pay all teaching and support staff, even though most centers have closed, at least through June 30. With unprecedented levels of unemployment, being able to guarantee employees a paycheck and benefits is invaluable and will help ensure that Head Start providers can reopen when it is deemed safe.

Approximately 90 percent of Head Start centers have closed their doors during COVID-19. The federal Office of Head Start (OHS) is asking grantees to prioritize serving their children and families in whatever capacity they can, and is giving them flexibility to do so. Head Start has always been more than an early learning program—grantees routinely help families access healthcare, job training, nutritious meals, and more. Now, grantees are taking high- and low-tech approaches to support children and families through activities ranging from food, learning packet, and device distribution, to phone calls and online events, to drive-through graduation ceremonies.

Rather than emphasizing the high-quality early learning experiences that Head Start programs are known for, OHS has offered guidance around prioritizing relationships. In a message released in late April, Dr. Deborah Bergeron, Director of OHS, explained, “I think most important right now is the notion that families know we're here. Just having that connection and knowing that we haven't forgotten about them, to me is one of the most important things.” Bergeron encouraged staff to foster parent-child relationships, help families establish routines, and offer simple ways to support learning during everyday experiences, like singing while washing dishes and telling stories while folding laundry. OHS has been actively providing guidance and answering grantee questions, both for those that have closed their doors and those that remain open.

While Head Start staff are serving children and families remotely, many facilities are going unused. Federal guidelines prohibit grantees from using Head Start funds for anything other than Head Start services, meaning, programs can’t simply start serving children of essential workers if they do not meet Head Start eligibility criteria. OHS has clarified that facilities may be leased to entities offering child care to essential workers, as long as supplies are reimbursed, utilities and rent are covered by the lease payments, and entities are prepared to vacate the space quickly once Head Start classes can resume.

Furthermore, Head Start staff can choose to work at these essential care facilities, but can only be paid for work done outside of their regular Head Start work hours. During the time in which they would normally work and earn a salary from Head Start, staff are expected to provide support for Head Start children and families.

Programs are preparing to innovate with new funding that has become available to address COVID-19 as well. So far, Congress has allocated $750 million to Head Start in relief packages. According to OHS, $500 million will be used for supplemental summer programs and the remaining $250 million is “available for one-time activities in response to COVID-19.” Suggested response activities include mental health services, coordination with public health departments, training for staff in infectious disease control, purchase of cleaning supplies, and investments in technology.

The supplemental summer program funding, intended “to promote school readiness and successful transitions to kindergarten,” is directed toward grantees who do not yet offer year-round programming. The summer programs must support children’s social and emotional development, help families access health and wellness services for children, and provide a strong transition into kindergarten. Applications for both the summer learning and COVID-related programming were due May 15th and awards will be processed in June.

Families with low-incomes have been hit especially hard these past few months. Now more than ever, they need the supports that Head Start can provide. The latest stimulus bill passed by House Democrats does not include specific funding for Head Start, and only allocates $7 billion for the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). This is nowhere near the $50 billion that advocates and policymakers have called for to support the early childhood education system through the crisis, and miles away from the investment required to develop a system that truly meets all families’ needs.

As the COVID-19 crisis continues, our Early & Elementary Education Policy team will be collecting stories from the Head Start community, highlighting innovations that Head Start programs develop with their stimulus funds, and monitoring federal investments in early childhood education more broadly. Please reach out if you have challenges you want to elevate, innovations or strategies others can benefit from learning about, or good news you'd like to share widely.

Interested in staying up to date on education and workforce policy? Subscribe to our newsletter to receive updates on the latest from our experts.

Related Topics
Head Start Birth Through Third Grade Learning