Despite mask mandates virtually gone from most of daily life, children attending Head Start programs in the Delaware Valley will still be required to wear them this upcoming school year.
Six months after CDC guidance ended requiring students to wear masks in schools, the Delaware Valley Journal reached out to all four counties’ Head Start programs, which provide early learning and development for young children in low-income households, to discover if masks would still be required this year. Of the three that responded–Bucks, Delaware, and Montgomery–all said the mandate would still be in place.
“At the current time, the Montgomery County (Intermediate Unit) Head Start programs are going to be requiring masks,” Holly Acosta, director of early childhood at the MCIU, told DVJ. That rule, for now, will apply “no matter the community level of transmission,” she said.
Part of this may be out of local counties’ hands. In November 2021, the federal Office of Head Start announced an interim rule that required staff to be vaccinated and established universal masking for all students 2 years old and older.
“Because the health and safety of our children and families remain our top priority,” Delaware County Head Start Director Jennie Prochorenko-Stadelberger said, “the (Delaware Intermediate Unit) Head Start program is still following the Interim Final Rule from the federal Office of Head Start.”
She added the program had its own health and safety plan in place as well and has not heard of any changes to the federal guidance since the rule was announced.
As a federal grant holder, the Bucks County Intermediate Unit must comply with the masking guidelines of the federal office, a spokesperson said.
The federal rules are strict. Children must wear masks indoors unless eating, drinking, napping, or if they have a disability that prevents them from wearing a mask. It also means wearing a mask outdoors for students, due to potential close contact.
However, the BCIU spokesperson added additional guidance from the federal office stating it is not necessary to monitor compliance with the guidelines.
“Accordingly, the Bucks IU will not monitor for compliance with the mask requirement in Bucks IU Head Start and Early Head Start Programs,” the spokesperson said. “This ‘pause’ on monitoring will remain in effect until additional guidance is received.”
If further guidance is delivered that curtails that relaxation of monitoring compliance, those strict rules would be enforced once again.
When it comes to mask mandates for young children, America is an outlier. The World Health Organization does not recommend masks for children under age 5. The European equivalent of the CDC does not recommend it for children under age 12.
Reliable data on the impact of mask mandates on COVID spread are hard to find, but many studies show masking is harmful to the development of young children, weakening the accuracy of social perception. A study from earlier in the pandemic said masks break down verbal and non-verbal communication, and especially hinder emotional connections between students and educators.
Beth Ann Rosica, executive director of Back to School PA, a political PAC started in response to prolonged school closures due to COVID-19, said the current rules are unfair.
“The vast majority of public and private schools, preschools, and daycare facilities across the state of Pennsylvania are not mandating masks for students or staff,” she said. “The children attending Head Start are entitled to the same learning environment as parents who can afford private preschool.”
Rosica said it goes against Head Start’s mission which is to strengthen parent-child relationships and engage families in their child’s development, according to its website.
“In order to strengthen relationships and engage families,” Rosica said, “the program should respect the rights of parents to make these important decisions on behalf of their children.”