Court ends Head Start COVID vaccine mandate nationwide

Staff at Head Start early childhood learning centers nationwide will no longer be required to get COVID-19 vaccinations after a federal judge vacated the mandate imposed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, according to the summary judgment issued March 31.

In the decision, Judge James Wesley Hendrix, of the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas, called the HHS rule “arbitrary and capricious.” Hendrix said HHS failed to follow proper rulemaking procedures when it issued a Nov. 30, 2021, interim final rule requiring Head Start staff, contractors and volunteers to be fully vaccinated. The rule also required masks for those ages 2 years and older.

Head Start programs that refused to follow the mandates were at risk for losing federal funding, according to the summary judgment. 

“Regardless of how well intentioned, HHS’s attempt here to shoehorn the vaccine mandate into statutory language authorizing modification of Head Start’s administrative, financial, and facility-management standards goes too far,” the decision said.

The Texas attorney general’s office had filed the lawsuit against HHS in December 2021, claiming the dual mask and vaccine mandate was invalid. By September 2022, HHS said it would no longer enforce the mask mandate. The vaccine requirement, however, remained in effect, according to a final rule issued by HHS in January.

Separate from the Texas lawsuit, the National Head Start Association had raised concerns of negative impacts on programs from the mandates. A study by the advocacy organization on the interim rule predicted Head Start could lose 22%, or nearly 60,000 staff, of its workforce due to the vaccine mandate.

A workforce report released this February by NHSA found 20% of Head Start classrooms were closed, with staff shortages being the main cause. The vaccine mandate was not cited as a challenge. Rather, reasons for ongoing teacher vacancies included chronically low compensation, challenging classroom conditions given children’s behavioral and developmental setbacks, and competition with school districts for staff.

In a statement about the summary judgment, NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci said Head Start will remain committed to the health and safety of children, families, staff and communities. 

“That said, we have every confidence this decision will allow programs to, at long-last, reclaim their local autonomy, which is at the foundation of what they do best: serve children and families in a safe, healthy, and community-driven manner,” Vinci said.

This article originally appeared in

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