To keep its Head Start program running, North Idaho College has instituted a COVID-19 vaccination requirement for staff and volunteers of the program, along with a mask mandate for all involved in it.
The college’s Board of Trustees voted unanimously Wednesday to establish the restrictions to comply with federal standards, which are necessary for the college’s Head Start program to continue. Head Start provides comprehensive preschool, health and family services to eligible children and families.
North Idaho College received upward of $3.3 million in federal funding this year to host Head Start program activities for around 280 students in Kootenai, Boundary, Bonner, Benewah and Shoshone counties.
College officials said new Head Start performance standards, however, now include a COVID-19 vaccine requirement for staff, contractors and volunteers, as well as a mask mandate for all involved individuals aged 2 and older.
The college does not require masks or COVID-19 vaccines among staff or students, a policy that – until Wednesday – ran in conflict with the new Head Start requirements.
A mask mandate put in place by former President Rick MacLennan lasted just four days in August before the requirement was rescinded by the board majority. MacLennan was fired without cause a month later.
Wednesday’s vote was 4-0; Board Chair Todd Banducci only needs to vote in the case of a tie.
Chris Martin, vice president for finance and business affairs, said Wednesday that federal Head Start administrators explained that programs are going through an implementation period with the new standards.
Though he was unsure of any end point to this implementation period, Martin said remaining noncompliant could have resulted in relinquishing the grant to the federal government.
“Because it’s a fully funded program, it’s all federal dollars,” Martin said when asked by the board, “and so the performance standards, when we accept the grant as the grantee, we are also accepting that we will follow the performance standards that come with that grant.”
While the measures “aren’t fully baked yet,” Martin said the idea to comply with the standards is to accept religious or medical exemptions to the vaccine mandate, while instituting mandatory weekly testing for exempt individuals. Martin said the testing costs would be covered by federal funds.
“As these rules get developed, our intent would be to offer medical or religious declinations to any employee who requested them,” Martin said.
The mask mandate would apply according to the federal standards.
In addition, the college is planning to relocate the Head Start classroom out of the NIC Children’s Center on the main college campus to the Harding Family Center on North 15th Street where the college already hosts several Head Start classrooms. The college serves 16 children in the NIC Children’s Center classroom.
“The rationale for relocating that Head Start classroom to the Harding Center is primarily related to employee morale and ease of operation,” Martin said. “We were trying to avoid the situation where we’ve got two different sets of rules both for children and for employees working in the exact same location.”
Trustees made the decision following a public comment period during which a handful of community members expressed concerns with the potential loss of the Head Start program.
“We’ve got a choice,” Trustee Ken Howard said. “We could lose Head Start, or we can separate them out as a separate entity and maintain the service that we have to these communities of the Head Start programs. I think to not separate them out is to remove the opportunity for the Head Start program to service the population in this area.”
Banducci said he and Interim President Michael Sebaaly got in touch with officials at the College of Southern Idaho, another community college in Twin Falls that has its own Head Start program, to stay consistent with their plans to handle the new standards.
“We do want to keep working with Head Start. We heard you,” he said to Wednesday’s audience regarding their concerns. “We’re already there.”
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