Screenings are Down and Head Start Steps Up

New research shows child preventative health screenings are down, underscoring the critical need for Head Start

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Head Start program at Lynn Economic Opportunity Inc. in Lynn, Massachusetts

In the time of COVID-19, Head Start’s comprehensive approach to early childhood development is especially critical. Recent data analysis from the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) revealed that this year, compared to the same time period in 2019, there was a significant decline in critical primary and time-sensitive preventative services for young children — services that, for decades, Head Start has successfully delivered to families and young children from at-risk backgrounds.

The data showed, between March and May of 2020:

For Head Start children and families especially, complications and fears associated with accessing health care brought on by COVID-19 pose an immense threat to children’s health. Yet, once again, Head Start programs are stepping up to these new challenges to continue supporting children and families.

Head Start programs across the nation are demonstrating their adaptability by innovating to meet health needs during the pandemic. As one Head Start health specialist in Arkansas shared, “To ensure timely screening we were able to obtain two spot vision screeners. It can take as little as 15 seconds to screen a child. We have had events where we screened kids in the community and found several who needed glasses and hadn’t seen an optometrist.”

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Head Start program at Next Door in Milwaukee, Wisconsin

Head Start adapts to new barriers in the COVID-19 era

America’s youngest generation faces a confluence of threats stemming from COVID-19 — first, decreased access to foundational school readiness services; then, fewer occasions for social-emotional development; and now, lost opportunities for critical vaccines and early intervention. Statistics showing massively decreased medical visits among children pose long-term risks.

Without access to doctors for routine check-ups and specialists to identify and treat disabilities or delays, children could suffer unnecessarily for years during a critical period of development, ultimately undermining their full potential.

Early identification and intervention, especially in the case of developmental delays, can have lasting impacts on the effectiveness of interventions. Screening early matters, and this is what Head Start does best.

From Head Start’s conception, Dr. Robert Cooke and the team of psychologists behind the program’s comprehensive design wrote that the first objective was “improving the child’s physical health and physical abilities.” They were concerned about the many areas of the country where children in poverty often did not receive necessary immunizations, let alone see a doctor or dentist regularly. That’s why Head Start’s focus on child health and development is core to its whole-child approach to preparing children for success. With COVID-19 affecting regular doctor visits and health screenings, this aspect of the Head Start model is all the more critical.

Even before the pandemic, a number of factors were blocking Head Start children and families from health care services. Research from the National Head Start Association in 2017 uncovered that access to transportation and the ability of Medicaid providers to communicate in patients’ primary language are common barriers for families who partner with Head Start. For some of the more isolated communities Head Start serves, a blanket lack of Medicaid providers presents an immense hurdle. To address these obstacles, Head Start programs go above and beyond — completing screening in the program, providing transportation and translation, and finding families’ medical homes — to ensure that the children they serve receive the medical care that is a necessary foundation for a healthy life.

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Head Start program at INCA Community Services, INC.

Building off of a record of success

The results of Head Start’s intentional focus on the health and physical needs of children speak for themselves. In the 2018–19 program year (the latest for which data is available), Head Start increased the percentage of children enrolled in the program who were up-to-date on well-child check-ups by more than 20%. In addition, Head Start’s focus on preventative treatment and screenings resulted in more than 64,000 children starting personalized early intervention plans (IFSPs and IEPs), and nearly 90,000 children were identified as in need of additional assessment for disabilities. This early identification of children’s individual needs enables Head Start and their future educational settings to provide them with the support they need to be successful in school and beyond.

For more than 55 years, Head Start has integrated health care access, immunizations, screenings, and developmental sup3qwports into the comprehensive services offered to children and families. Poverty too often goes hand-in-hand with poor health, limited access to necessary medical services, and insufficient care. Head Start’s comprehensive health services address these needs and are integral to the success of children and families. As Head Start is known to do, the Head Start community must remain committed to triumphing over all barriers — COVID-19 included — that prevent adequate care for our youngest learners.

Did you know that, after continuing services throughout the pandemic, local Head Start programs are confronting substantial costs as they safely reopen for in-person services? These changes — largely in the form of additional staffing, facility and transportation adjustments, and recurring sanitation costs — are all necessary to effectively serve children and families, and are creating a $1.7 billion shortfall. Read more about what this means for Head Start’s future in Executive Director Yasmina Vinci’s latest op-ed in The Hill.

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NHSA is a nonprofit organization committed to the belief that every child, regardless of circumstances at birth, has the ability to succeed in life.

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