President Joe Biden’s administration put a policy in place that requires all employees in a federal education program to get the COVID-19 vaccine, which program directors argue will have a detrimental effect on Montana’s programs that assist underserved communities in the state.
If enforced, the requirement will have a negative impact on Montana’s Head Start program, according to program directors and information provided to the Daily Caller News Foundation by the state’s Department of Justice (DOJ). The Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), along with the White House, has mandated the vaccine for teachers and staff who work for Head Start and Early Head Start programs nationwide.
Head Start includes preschool programs for 3 and 4-year-old children, while Early Head Start programs are for infants, toddlers and pregnant women to “promote the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families by supporting their development in a comprehensive way,” according to its website.
One program in rural Montana won’t have enough employees to continue operating if the mandate goes into effect following the Jan. 31 deadline. An email from the program’s director, which the Montana DOJ provided to the DCNF, said the director was “truly irritated” with the Office of Head Start (OHS) calling people who have opted not to take the vaccine “quitters.”
“These people [Head Start staff] are underpaid and have huge responsibilities,” the director of a program that serves rural Montanans, said in the email. “I believe I have built this program into a comprehensive and successful Head Start program,” which she does not want her community to lose. The director has opted to keep her name and the names of the towns her program serves anonymous out of fear of retaliation from the federal OHS office.
The director told the DCNF that most Head Start directors are dealing with a shortage of staff and low student enrollment numbers, according to a meeting with the state’s program directors. She attributed shortages to the mask requirement for all children over the age of two and the impending vaccine requirement for staff.
She said she doesn’t understand why the federal government would be willing to get rid of more staff since they already don’t have enough personnel as is. She was one of the few directors who did not mask her kids, she told the DCNF.
“What I’m doing now is surveying the parents,” the director said. “Because, if they don’t want their child to wear a mask, which almost all of them have said that. We have given them the option of wearing a mask.”
Republican Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen, along with Republican Montana Sen. Steve Daines have called on the HHS to rescind the COVID-19 vaccine mandate for Montana Head Start employees and volunteers so they can continue their jobs and provide childcare to the families who rely on those services.
Knudsen’s office is “looking into legal avenues to challenge the mandate,” Communications Director Kyler Nerison told the DCNF.
“President Biden’s unconstitutional vaccination mandates have been blocked by courts around the country, but instead of taking the hint, he’s targeting hardworking Head Start employees right before the holidays,” Knudsen told the DCNF. “Like many organizations, these programs are already challenged to find staff. The vaccination mandate will only make the problem worse while people in rural communities continue to suffer from the president’s disastrous policies.”
In a letter to HHS Secretary Xavier Becerra, Daines explained that the vaccine requirement for Head Start workers in Montana would force some employees our of their jobs, which would impact families’ access to essential childcare.
“As you know, the rule requires universal masking for those two years and older attending Head Start and mandates all staffers, contractors working directly with children, and volunteers be vaccinated against the coronavirus by January 31, 2022,” the letter said. “More than 3,000 children attend Head Start in the state of Montana. Now, this vaccine mandate threatens to disrupt this service for Montana families and communities.”
“These employees and volunteers do not deserve this threat nor do the families and children who benefit from the program deserve the uncertainty this mandate will cause,” Daines wrote. “The government mandated vaccine targeting Head Start employees and volunteers will hurt Montana’s most disadvantaged families and children. Therefore, I ask that it be rescinded immediately.”
The anonymous Head Start program director said her health coordinator spoke with all 30 staff members, 20 of whom are not vaccinated and don’t want to be, she told the DCNF. Around four or five employees said they would get the vaccine in order to keep their jobs, but could still result in a closure come Feb. 1st if half of the staff remain unvaccinated.
“These are truly dedicated staff, but have to draw the line on personal and medical liberties,” she said. “Please give me some hope for our staff, myself and the families who entrust us with their little ones.”
“The majority of Head Start children are not yet eligible for the vaccine,” a Head Start statement said, as justification for mandating the COVID-19 vaccine. “This means it is critically important that our Head Start teachers and staff be fully vaccinated.”
The Head Start director told the DCNF that she believes the issue is “all political.”
“The ramifications down the line for head are not good if they continue this … I feel like this has just tore us down to nothing, staff morale is at the lowest I’ve ever seen,” she said.
Head Start did not respond to the DCNF’s request for comment.
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