Head Start Shut Down By Government Shutdown
MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
And I'm Audie Cornish. It hasn't even been a day since lawmakers failed to come to an agreement over a spending bill to keep the government open, but in less than 24 hours, the impact of the shutdown is already evident around the country and we're not just talking about government workers. Children are affected, too. About 19,000 kids won't be able to attend Head Start, a federal education program for preschoolers.
Dora Jones runs a Head Start program in Talladega, Alabama, that is forced to close its doors. I spoke with her earlier today and she told me she's had a very busy day.
DORA JONES: Well, actually, our programs are across six counties here in Talladega. We serve approximately 770 children and families with roughly 240 employees. And today started early this morning, around 5:00 with parents calling concerned, what can they do with their children because they rely solely on Head Start to provide quality care for them during the day.
Some of these parents are working parents. Some of these parents are parents that are in school. They have no other choice and no alternatives for childcare.
CORNISH: And so, walk us through some of those phone calls. What were they saying?
JONES: When are you all gonna open? Why did you close? Why didn't you all let us know before now that you were gonna close? What day will you open back? When can we bring our children back? What are we supposed to do with our children in the meantime? It's been just an array of questions and parents out of concerns, I had just finished talking to a parent that has classes at one of the local colleges and has no source of childcare.
Of course, I've been making referrals to as many places as I can, but the opportunity for them to get in on such short notice is very limited. And our biggest concern here is that they're gonna leave these children in unsafe settings, unlicensed home care facilities or some of them may even leave children at home. We have a lot of parents that are teens themselves.
Will they be in the service of anyone that's gonna provide meals for them, look after them properly, keep them safe? I mean, we have so many concerns and very few answers to give people that's satisfactory to help them, to give them any relief at this time.
CORNISH: Now, not every Head Start program in the country is being forced to close due to the government shutdown. Can you talk about why programs like yours have been more affected than some others?
JONES: Yes. It depends on your funding date from the government. There are programs that have funding dates that could begin with any month in the year. But since my program is a program that operates with funding from October 1st through September 30th, they shut down before they passed a continued resolution to fund those 10-1 programs.
CORNISH: Now, what exactly are you telling parents? I don't know if you are literally going around locking the doors on each of these facilities. What does it mean for your programs to be closed?
JONES: That's exactly what it meant. We have no choice. If you don't have staff to operate, then parents can't bring the children. We have no funds to pay the staff. I legally had money to pay people through yesterday's work and that's it. I have no money to pay people starting 10-1. So that meant the centers had to close down. Could we tell them this a week in advance? No.
Could we tell them 48 hours in advance? No. What we did last week was to notify people that there's a potential risk of the government shutdown and if it happens, then it would be a disruption in services.
CORNISH: So on Monday, for instance, if you were a little kid in a Head Start program, did your teacher say anything to you about, hey, there may - you may not be here tomorrow?
JONES: No. We did not tell the children that because, first of all, it would've been scary. Second of all, we didn't know that for a fact and we were trying to deal with facts. And no one knew Monday that we would not be there Tuesday. So to scare the children, especially children that look forward to coming to Head Start, children that probably have their only meals during the day, nutritious meals anyway, at Head Start so to go out and make them alarmed and frighten them and scare them by we're not gonna be here tomorrow, you don't ever know what's in the child's mind. They may have been thinking, then who's gonna take care of me? Where am I gonna to tomorrow?
CORNISH: Now, Dora, are you supposed to be in today?
JONES: Yes. I had to get special approval for four of my people to work through Friday because at the month end, we have to make payroll and we had to be here to do that. We also have to make USDA report for the children's meals that were served in the month of September. We had to be here to do that. If this is not resolved by Friday, then we will be going home, too.
CORNISH: Dora, do you have any message to lawmakers?
JONES: Yes, ma'am. Please think of the poor innocent children that's being affected because two groups refuse to come together as adults and make a compromise.
CORNISH: Dora Jones, thank you so much for speaking with us.
JONES: You're welcome.
CORNISH: Dora Jones, she's director of the Cheaha Regional Head Start at Talladega Clay Randolph Childcare Corporation, which is located in Talladega, Alabama.