WASHINGTON — U.S. Sens. John Thune (R-S.D.) and Richard Burr (R-N.C.), ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions, today sent a letter to U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Xavier Becerra requesting that the department rescind its one-size-fits-all federal mask mandate on Head Start programs. Children six months to five years of age are currently eligible to be vaccinated against COVID-19, but a HHS interim final rule (IFR) still requires all staff and volunteers in Head Start educational facilities to be vaccinated and requires all staff, volunteers, and children two years of age and older to wear masks – even when they are outside on the playground.
“This IFR continues to be an overly rigid, inflexible rule that complicates individual Head Start programs’ ability to operate and attract staff and volunteers – though there is a preliminary injunction against the IFR in multiple states – and we request that you immediately rescind it,” the senators wrote. “The nation must continue to transition toward treating COVID-19 as an endemic condition and return to a sense of normalcy, and it is past time for Washington bureaucrats to allow Head Start programs to do the same.”
In May, the Senate passed Thune’s bipartisan resolution to repeal the Biden administration’s mask mandate for toddlers in the Head Start program. In February, Thune introduced a resolution to nullify HHS’s IFR, and in December 2021, he introduced separate legislation to do the same. In January, he led his colleagues in sending a letter to Secretary Becerra requesting that the administration rescind the IFR.
The Head Start program is a federal program that provides qualifying, low-income children with early education services. Program facilities are located throughout the nation and, up until the issuance of this IFR, individual locations had been able to set and enforce their own COVID-19 protocols. Although this rule has been halted by federal courts in several states, including South Dakota, the only way to ensure it never sees the light of day is to permanently rescind it nationwide.
The letter was also signed by U.S. Sens. John Barrasso (R-Wyo.), Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), John Boozman (R-Ark.), Mike Braun (R-Ind.), Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.), Kevin Cramer (R-N.D.), Mike Crapo (R-Idaho), Jim Inhofe (R-Okla.), James Lankford (R-Okla.), Cynthia Lummis (R-Wyo.), Jim Risch (R-Idaho). Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), Cindy Hyde-Smith (R-Miss.), Dan Sullivan (R-Alaska), and Thom Tillis (N.C.).
Full letter below:
The Honorable Xavier Becerra
U.S. Department of Health & Human Services
200 Independence Avenue, Southwest
Washington, D.C. 20201
Dear Secretary Becerra:
Since November 2021, vaccine and mask mandates on Head Start and Early Head Start programs have been in effect as a result of a U.S. Health and Human Services (HHS) interim final rule (IFR). We write to highlight how unnecessary these mandates continue to be and request that this IFR be rescinded immediately.
As you know, as of January 31, 2022, this IFR requires Head Start staff and volunteers to be vaccinated against COVID-19. It also requires Head Start staff and volunteers to wear masks. But beyond these mandates, the IFR also requires students two years of age and older to wear masks despite the World Health Organization advising against mask mandates for children five years of age and younger.
Up until the publication of this IFR in late 2021 – more than 18 months after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic – individual Head Start programs across the nation had the flexibility to implement their own precautions that effectively protected staff, volunteers, and students in these facilities. This flexibility afforded each individual program the opportunity to establish health and safety protocols and other mitigation strategies that were consistent with state and local laws and recommendations that worked best for their staff, volunteers, and students. In fact, according to a December 2020 report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), this flexibility was effective, as the CDC found that individual programs successfully implemented recommendations that limited the transmission of COVID-19 in their facilities.
The application of inflexible federal rules on individual Head Start programs through this IFR and the forcing of toddlers enrolled in these programs to wear masks even caught the attention of Congress. On May 3, 2022, the U.S. Senate passed a joint resolution providing for congressional disapproval of this IFR by a bipartisan vote of 55 to 41, with seven Democrats supporting the resolution and opposing the IFR.
Prior to Senate consideration of the resolution, President Biden unfortunately committed to vetoing it. A primary reason for his opposition was because, at the time of Senate consideration, the CDC had not yet approved children five years of age and younger to be vaccinated against COVID-19. However, on June 18, 2022, the CDC approved certain COVID-19 vaccines for children six months through five years of age. Head Start-aged children are now eligible to receive the COVID-19 vaccine if their families so choose.
This IFR continues to be an overly rigid, inflexible rule that complicates individual Head Start programs’ ability to operate and attract staff and volunteers – though there is a preliminary injunction against the IFR in multiple states – and we request that you immediately rescind it. The nation must continue to transition toward treating COVID-19 as an endemic condition and return to a sense of normalcy, and it is past time for Washington bureaucrats to allow Head Start programs to do the same.
Thank you for your prompt attention to this request.