Earlier this week, on June 26, 2023, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Administration for Children and Families (ACF) Office of Head Start (OHS) officially issued a long-awaited Final Rule, “Removal of the Vaccine Requirements for Head Start Programs.” The Final Rule the eliminates the Head Start Program Performance Standards’ (“HSPPS”) full COVID-19 vaccination or testing requirement for all Head Start staff, contractors whose activities involve contact with or providing direct services to children and families, and volunteers working in classrooms or directly with children. The vaccine mandate stems from ACF’s Interim Final Rule issued on November 20, 2021.
The Final Rule is largely a formality since it was issued three months after a federal judge had already vacated the mandate in a summary judgment decision issued March 31, 2023 with nationwide impact. The Rule also follows the May 11, 2023, official end of the COVID-19 public health emergency.
The ACF cites three reasons as justification for the removal of the vaccine requirement.
- First, ACF referred to the “change in pandemic conditions” in reasoning that COVID-19 is “no longer a societal emergency as it was at the onset of the pandemic.”
- Second, ACF promoted its earlier Final Rule, Mitigating the Spread of COVID-19 in Head Start Programs, 88 Fed. Reg. 993 (Jan. 6, 2023), requiring Head Start grant recipients to implement an evidence-based COVID-19 mitigation policy by March 7, 2023. That policy could include vaccination, as a means of supporting staff vaccination efforts.
- Finally, ACF referred to a host of public comments, many of which expressed concerns about the continuing nature of the vaccine requirement, as rationale for rescinding the vaccine and testing requirements.
Overall, the Final Rule demonstrates that OHS and ACF have followed the changing tides relating to COVID-19 guidance in light of the expiration of the public health emergency. The certainty of an official regulatory policy related to vaccination status should be welcomed by Head Start grant recipients, as they no longer need to set staff and volunteer policy based on court decisions alone.