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Group says additional funding is needed as programs have to pay for extra sanitation and equipment to keep kids and teachers safe.

Head Start programs across the nation could face deep budget shortfalls because of added financial and health risks brought on by the pandemic.

The National Head Start Association (NHSA) is concerned because coronavirus relief funding proposed by Senate Republicans has funding for schools, but left out Head Start, which helps get over a million American children ready for elementary school. The group estimates they will need $1.7 billion in additional funding to properly run programs throughout the country.

Head Start programs have been working through the pandemic to continue serving their communities. Although most locations had to shut down temporarily to slow the spread of the coronavirus, the organization was able to retain all staff and make adjustments as needed to work remotely. 

The NHSA received $750 million in earlier relief packages that supported the most immediate needs of the programs, like sanitation costs. According to an internal report from the NHSA, the organization spent 93% of its first round of funding on personal protective equipment alone. Another large portion of the funding went to addressing the mental health needs of the children participating in the program.

Sonia Jaramillo, who serves as a Head Start director in California, explained that one major challenge is maintaining sanitation procedures. 

“Currently, our program provides preschool services at 30 Head Start classrooms, and we only have three custodians to clean them. The custodial team barely has time to clean the classrooms during the 8 hours of work [due to distance between sites,]” she said.

Jaramillo went on to explain that in order to meet new cleaning requirements, her local site will need to hire two additional custodians. 

Cleaning staff aren’t just sanitizing bathrooms and high-touch areas. Because the program serves small children, they must also clean things like playgrounds, furniture, toys, and books. 

As the United States heads into the fall and parents have to balance work and family, Head Start is still facing financial challenges along with an increase in need. 

“Now, as Head Start programs work to reopen their classrooms safely, they are confronting the true cost of operating in the COVID-19 era,” said NHSA Executive Director Yasmina Vinci in a statement

“From PPE for children and staff to cleaning supplies to additional mental health services for children coping with this new trauma, Head Start programs are facing a funding shortfall that will soon impact the vulnerable children and families they are helping navigate this crisis.”

Head Start programs began as an eight week summer program in 1965. It was designed to interrupt the cycle of poverty by providing preschool children in low-income families an opportunity to grow emotionally, socially and psychologically. The programs also help families with nutritional and other support. Today, Head Start serves more than a million children across the United States and Puerto Rico, each year.