Head Start programs are expressing relief after the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services notified them late Friday of plans to drop the universal masking requirement for children, teachers and staff.
The requirement had remained in effect despite changes to COVID-19 guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In recent weeks, many lawmakers and Head Start programs have called on the federal agency to drop universal masking.
While HHS has not yet issued a final rule formally changing the requirement, it said in an email it will do so for individuals 2 and older in the near future. In the meantime, the Office of Head Start will not monitor mask use and has in fact not done so since February 2022, when the updated guidance from the CDC was released, the email said.
The announcement restores local authority to the programs, said Tommy Sheridan, deputy director of the National Head Start Association, in a statement on Friday. He added that he is "grateful for today’s announcement that finally gives us the clarity we have been seeking."
"It will go a long way to allow programs to do what they do best in a safe, healthy, and community-driven manner," Sheridan said.
In late July, the National Head Start Association said conflicting guidance, including on mask wearing policies, was having a negative impact on the program.
A study released last year by the organization on the interim rule found vaccine and masking mandates could lead to Head Start programs losing between 46,614 and 72,422 — or 18% to 26% — of all staff and the closure of over 1,300 Head Start classrooms. The program has already experienced strain from vaccine mandates and low staff pay.
NHSA had previously asked HHS to issue a final rule clarifying its COVID-19 health and safety requirements by Aug. 15. The federal Unified Agenda shows HHS plans to issue a final rule in October.