COLUMBIA — The federal government shutdown is forcing Central Missouri Community Action to take a wait-and-see approach to determine further operation of its Head Start program.
Several Head Start facilities across the county were forced to close after their federal grants expired Tuesday, and they are ineligible for renewal during the shutdown.
Community Action's Head Start facilities, however, will continue to receive federal funding because they operate on a different funding contract, which is not set to expire until May 1.
Community Action provides child care for approximately 400 preschoolers and 200 infants and toddlers at about 20 facilities in Columbia and central Missouri. The organization is contractually obligated to provide meals for Head Start participants.
"There are plenty of kids where their only meal for the day comes from Head Start," said Darin Preis, Community Action's executive director.
However, the shutdown is creating challenges to the organization's ability to feed all of those children.
The federal Child and Adult Care Food Program, which provides funds for breakfast, lunches and snacks for Head Start programs, has halted funding until the government resumes activity.
As a result, Community Action has already begun to rearrange its funding model to pay for food, which costs almost $2,500 per day.
Preis said he is concerned about how long Columbia's Head Start program and others in central Missouri will be able to operate without federal reimbursement for the food.
He estimated that Community Action will be able to absorb food costs and sustain operations for almost a month, but he said that some facilities might have to close if the shutdown lasts any longer.
"If the government is still shut down by next Friday, we're going to have some contingency plans in place, and we will talk to parents," Preis said.
If Community Action's Head Start funding dries up, parents will have to stay home from work or find alternative sources for child care services. Preis said many children could be left alone in unsafe settings or unlicensed home care facilities.
"Parents will be scrambling," Preis said. "Chances are good that there will be 4- and 5-year-olds left alone at home."
Older Head Start participants could transfer to public preschools, but there is a long waiting list and the odds of everybody finding a spot are pretty slim, Preis said.
Community Action workers will warn parents before closing Head Start facilities and do their best to make referrals to safe child care service providers, Preis said.
"We are open for the foreseeable future, and we're going to do everything in our power to stay open," Preis said. "We're trying to minimize the impact on their lives and absorb as much as we can internally."
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