5 Ways State Policymakers Can Step Up to Support the Children of Head Start in 2021

The impact of COVID-19 in 2020 was felt by all children in the U.S., but took a particular toll on families living in poverty and children of color. From Day 1 of the pandemic, Head Start and Early Head Start stepped up, leading boldly to address growing food insecurity, innovating to support families at a distance, reopening programs with fidelity to CDC and state and local health guidelines, and working day-in-day-out to mitigate against childhood trauma.

COVID-19 continues to take a devastating health toll, even as vaccine relief is on the horizon. And we know that the economic ripple effects of the pandemic, in the form of higher poverty, higher unemployment, rising hunger, and declining state revenue for social services will persist.

While further federal investment is critical, we also look to states to step up to support the children and families of Head Start and Early Head Start in the year to come. Intervention by state policymakers will make a difference, positively changing and course-correcting the life trajectories of tens of thousands of young children at highest risk.

Here are 5 ways state policymakers can step up for Head Start in the new year:

  1. Expand awareness of and referrals to Head Start and Early Head Start to drive up enrollment. Enrollment in Head Start programs is being stressed in many communities, in part because traditional recruitment activities are no longer tenable during the pandemic, and in part because some parents are understandably fearful to return, despite the strong health and safety practices in HS and EHS programs. In addition to direct benefits for children and families, supporting Head Start and Early Head Start enrollment will minimize stress on other systems within states and communities. Strengthening statewide efforts to enroll eligible children who may be in foster care, experiencing homelessness, or in families involved with TANF is one-way states can expand outreach to assist local enrollment efforts. Others efforts could include awareness campaigns and messaging about the unique benefits of Head Start to past income-eligible or wait-listed CCDF families.
  2. Fund contract slots in areas where child care supply has been decimated or where Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships can support communities. Child care is deeply intertwined with Head Start and Early Head Start, all with a shared mission to aid child development and serve local communities. They exchange staff and partner together both informally and formally. Many Head Start programs serve children via child care subsidy. NHSA recently called on Governors and State Child Care Administrators to expand the use of contract slots in CCDF to stabilize child care providers. One specific opportunity for states is to use contracts to fund more Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships in order to respond to the immense need for high-quality infant and toddler care in distressed communities.
  3. Expand the option of full day services in Head Start. The ranks of unemployed families living in poverty have risen dramatically due to the economic dislocation of COVID-19. To support Head Start families returning to work, pursuing job training, or furthering their education, full-day Head Start services are needed. By setting additional priority for dually-eligible CCDF/Head Start families, waiving or minimizing burdensome CCDF co-pays, and, through partnership and dialogue with HS program directors, states can expand the number of full-day Head Start slots in their state. Many Head Start families are led by front-line, essential workers who will be needed for state and local economic recovery and growth.
  4. Invest in broad-scale mental health training, support, and hazard pay for early childhood educators to alleviate work-related stress and improve classroom environments. In addition to the stressors facing income-eligible children and families, there is a burgeoning mental health crisis among the early childhood workforce. Most Head Start and Early Head Start programs are offering in-person services and staff are dealing with anxiety of potential exposure, the dislocation of COVID-related closures, and managing their own economic and family stress. Even when teaching children and supporting families virtually, staff have had to adapt to elevated levels of poverty, housing dislocation, substance use and childhood trauma among the families they serve. Expanding field-wide support for mental health among early childhood staff not only improves their well-being, it contributes to more positive and responsive classroom environments. Hazard pay remains essential to alleviate economic anxiety and compensate staff for their heroic service during this pandemic. Any state-level initiatives should include Head Start staff.
  5. Fund Head Start programs to provide summer programming in 2021 to help more children, especially children with identified disabilities, enter kindergarten ready to learn. Head Start started 56 years ago as a summer learning program. Many programs continue to offer summer programming and all have expertise in school readiness and transition to kindergarten, which is required by the Head Start Act. All programs have required school partnerships and many programs exist within public schools. In 2020, the federal Office of Head Start supported programs to undertake summer programming, though the challenges of operating during the pandemic impeded programs’ ability to provide these services in many communities. In 2021, these efforts are only going to be even more vital. They are especially critical for children with identified disabilities and other children facing significant risk factors related to school readiness, health, and well-being. There are few state investments that will offer as high a return as helping rising kindergarteners with the Head Start model.

These are just 5 ways that states can support the children of Head Start. Our extensive outreach and engagement with the Head Start community also shows that states can provide critical support by:

  • Expanding partnerships with Head Start to address food insecurity and hunger; and
  • Extending E-Rate qualification (affordable telecommunication and information services) to ensure Head Start programs are able to help virtual programming reach more children.

Head Start and Early Head Start are community-based resources in all corners of the 50 states and territories, including American Indian/Alaska Native and Migrant/Seasonal farmworker communities, proven to prepare children from at-risk backgrounds for success in school and in life. They have led from Day 1 of this pandemic to serve children and families with the highest risk factors with best practices in trauma-informed care and comprehensive support for families. They are prepared and ready to lead during state recovery and reinvestment efforts in 2021 and beyond, with support from state policymakers.

For more information about how to implement these and other policy options, please contact Kent Mitchell, NHSA Director of State Affairs (kmitchell@nhsa.org).

NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store