Judge James Hendrix, U.S. District Judge for the Northern District of Texas, issued a preliminary injunction on New Year’s Eve that prevents the federal government from requiring COVID-19 vaccinations for Head Start staff and masks for children and adults in the program.
“It is undisputed that an agency cannot act without Congressional authorization,” Hendrix wrote.
Head Start is a federal program meant to help low-income children under the age of five prepare for school after pre-K.
The case at issue is a lawsuit by the State of Texas and the Lubbock Independent School District (LISD) against the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and other administrators of the Head Start program.
HHS adopted a rule that requires near-universal masking for everybody above the age of two in the program. It also requires that all Head Start workers be fully vaccinated against COVID-19 by January 31. Because the Moderna vaccine requires a four-week wait between doses, an unvaccinated person who intended to comply with the rule by receiving the Moderna vaccine must have received the first dose by January 3.
Head Start programs commonly operate through regular local school districts as pre-K classes. Participants like LISD must obey the HHS rule to receive Head Start funding, employees must comply to keep their jobs, and children must wear masks to attend.
The new rule is the first time that Head Start authorities have made a medical procedure a condition of employment.
Hendrix determined that the power to issue such a sweeping mandate must derive from Congress, not an agency.
“A federal agency cannot act absent Congressional authorization. It cannot confer power upon itself,” the judge wrote.
“Congress has not spoken to the precise question at issue… State laws and regulations have long required that at least children be vaccinated against many communicable diseases. Congress could have spoken directly to the issue of vaccination, masking, or other precautions in the last year when passing other COVID-19-related legislation, but it did not and has not.”
Specifically, Hendrix interpreted federal law to grant HHS only the power to “modify” Head Start standards, not promulgate a new mandate. The statute governing Head Start allows the agency to regulate standards for finance, administration, and even health protocols for the physical facilities themselves, but not masks.
Furthermore, Hendrix wrote, the agency’s current authority does not allow it to regulate health standards for the children themselves as a condition of participation. In other words, the agency can modify standards for health screenings, but it has never made the screenings a requirement for children to be a part of Head Start.
Although the order is a clear win for Texas, it wasn’t quite what the state asked for. Texas and LISD originally sought a nationwide injunction that would have blocked the vaccine and mask mandates in all Head Start programs across the country.
In their original complaint, Texas and LISD said enforcement of the rule could lead to program closures by cutting staff, especially in poor or rural areas.
“If these programs lose even a few staff, services will be halted, and low-income families will have to attempt to find another form of child care. Low-income communities simply do not have enough affordable child care programs to replace those that are currently open,” the state claimed.
In response, the Biden administration argued that the federal government reserves the right to govern how its funds are used.
“No one has a right to a Head Start grant, and no one has a right to attend a Head Start program. As a discretionary grant, the federal government maintains the authority to choose which entities receive grants,’ the defendants wrote.
“Any entity that chooses to apply for and receives a Head Start grant agrees that it will meet the performance standards HHS imposes, even if those entities are school districts or educational institutions.”
A federal judge in Louisana blocked the Head Start mask and vaccine requirements in 24 other states with a preliminary injunction on New Year’s Day. Both the Louisiana court and the Texas court are under the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, which recently narrowed a nationwide injunction in another case involving vaccine mandates.
Fifth Circuit precedent strongly suggests that it would have limited a nationwide injunction if Hendrix issued one in this case.
Texas received over $800,000,000 for Head Start programs in the 2021 fiscal year. Around 864,000 children participate in the program nationwide.
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