AUSTIN (Nexstar) — Attorney General Ken Paxton is again suing the federal government over vaccination policies, this time due to a new mask and vaccine mandate for staff and volunteers at Head Start early childhood education facilities.
Head Start is a federal program providing free childcare and education services for low-income families, aiming to get kids ready for school by 5 years of age. The program — overseen by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services — implemented a rule late November to require Head Start staff, contractors and volunteers to get their COVID-19 vaccination by Jan. 31, 2022. It also requires masking for everyone ages 2 and up. Staff can seek medical or religious exemptions but will be required to test weekly if so.
Many of the Head Start facilities in Texas are run by local school districts or community groups. Brittney Fitzpatrick, the health services manager at a Head Start run by Child Inc, said they will continue following health guidance as it is given to them.
“We are funded by the office of Head Start and so we’re gonna follow what the office of Head Start requires us,” she said. “As long as it’s not impending anybody’s health or safety we will follow that, along with the backing of the guidance of the CDC and awesome public health local support.”
Paxton’s lawsuit argues the rule will hurt Head Start programs because it may lead to resignations and parents removing their children from the childcare.
“I will not allow Texans to be coerced into getting a vaccine because the federal government is giving them an ultimatum to choose between their health or their child’s preschool education,” Paxton said in a statement. “The freedom and liberty of all Americans is at stake now and I will never stop fighting for what is right.”
Since the masking rule was implemented, Fitzpatrick said she has not received pushback from parents. Staff at the Head Start Child Inc in North Austin said parents have generally been on board with measures to keep their children safe.
“I think Head Start is going to be reasonable, they don’t expect us to be perfect. They aren’t expecting us to have [masks] on day one, every 2-year-old complying,” she said. “But our teachers are really working to model the behavior to get them to transition…most of our 3 and 4-year-olds are now.”
The lawsuit argues federal agencies do not have the authority to issue vaccine mandates without authorization from Congress. Defendants, including Secretary of Health and Human Services Xavier Becerra, say they have “statutory authority to protect the health and safety of Head Start participants and their families and ensure the continuation of services,” according to the lawsuit.
Paxton filed a preliminary injunction on Tuesday asking the courts to temporarily block this rule. To date, federal courts have halted three other federal COVID-19 vaccination requirements; Paxton has filed suit on all of those.
Josh Blackman, a constitutional law expert, predicts this policy will also be put temporarily on hold.
“The Biden Administration relied on old statutes and old programs to impose mask and vaccine requirements. And in several cases now, the Texas Attorney General has filed suit against the Biden administration, arguing that they don’t have the power to impose these requirements,” he said. “So far, Texas has been batting 3-0 in the court challenging these vaccine mandates. So I think this one would likely go the same way.”