7 Ways State Policymakers Can Step Up to Support the Children of Head Start as the American Rescue Plan Moves to U.S. Communities

Register for the upcoming NHSA webinar on May 13th at 1 p.m. EST for state policy leaders and advocates in and outside the Head Start community to learn more about the need for the seven below policies and how to execute these policy partnerships.

The American Rescue Plan (ARP) is a welcome lifeline to millions of children and families adversely affected by COVID-19. In addition to greatly expanding child care assistance by $39 billion, the plan offers a once-in-a-decade opportunity to reduce child poverty and improve child well-being through expansions of health, housing, food, and cash assistance. Head Start and Early Head Start are at the frontlines of this work (and received $1 billion in the ARP to expand and improve their services), but their impact on children and families from at-risk backgrounds can be greatly expanded through state collaboration and support.

Here are seven ways that all state leaders can help the children and families of Head Start and Early Head Start in 2021:

1. Engage Head Start and Early Head Start programs as community “hubs” for expanded health, food assistance, child tax credits, and other ARP supports.

Because of Head Start’s comprehensive model that addresses the whole child and whole family, Head Start is local infrastructure that can play a critical role in ensuring families are aware of and receive the many supports offered by the ARP. While most Head Start programs close for the summer, they are currently serving families, will serve Early Head Start families throughout the year, and will enroll over 600,000 children as summer turns to fall. Program directors and staff have deep connections with community partners, physical infrastructure to leverage, and built trust with families. States can tap into this acumen by holding educational forums in partnership with programs, working with programs to distribute materials, and even providing direct services on-site to eligible families.

2. Expand awareness of and referrals to Head Start and Early Head Start to connect families to the services that will best address their needs.

In-person enrollment in Head Start programs has been challenging, in part because traditional recruitment activities are no longer tenable during the pandemic, and in part because many parents are understandably fearful to return, despite the strong health and safety practices in Head Start and Early Head Start programs. In addition to direct benefits for children and families, supporting Head Start and Early Head Start enrollment in 2021 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.

3. Expand access to Early Head Start, including Early Head Start-Child Care Partnerships through CCDBG-funded contracts in communities where child care supply has been decimated.

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 directly fund Early Head Start slots or 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.

4. Expand 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, expanded hours of service are needed. By setting additional priority for dually-eligible CCDF/Head Start families, waiving 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.

5. Invest in broad-scale mental health training, support, and hazard (or shero/hero) 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. Even when teaching children and supporting families virtually, staff have had to adapt to elevated levels of poverty, housing dislocation, substance abuse, 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 also 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.

6. Fund Head Start programs to provide summer programming in 2021 to help rising kindergartners, especially children with identified disabilities, enter school 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.

7. Take this opportunity to reimagine a more just, inclusive, and equitable early childhood system through policy change.

Head Start has a 56-year history of addressing racial inequity and providing a welcoming educational and family support space for diverse children and families. Head Start programs prohibit suspension and expulsion, lift up linguistic, ethnic, and cultural diversity as assets and provide extensive family support, whether connections to job training or treatment for substance use disorder. In the past year, NHSA partnered with the Children’s Equity Project and many other stakeholders to release Start with Equity: 14 Priorities to Dismantle Systemic Racism in Early Care and Education. States have a unique moment in time to take up these recommendations and improve equity for our youngest children. Our state recommendations are a starting point for state policymakers.

Head Start and Early Head Start staff have led boldly since the onset of the pandemic, serving children and families with the highest risk factors with best practices in trauma-informed care and comprehensive family support. 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 seven, and other policy options, please contact Kent Mitchell, NHSA Director of State Affairs (kmitchell@nhsa.org) or your State Head Start Association.

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

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National Head Start Association

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

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