WASHINGTON, D.C. — Head Start grantees have been given clearance to request waivers from two key Head Start transportation requirements — that each child be seated in a child restraint system while the vehicle is in motion and that each bus have at least one monitor on board at all times.
In a final rule published Oct. 6, the Administration for Children and Families (ACF), an agency of the Department of Health and Human Services, said grantees for Head Start and Early Head Start can have these requirements waived if they can demonstrate that adhering to them would result in a “significant disruption to their program. If approved, the waivers would last for one year. The rule extends indefinitely a temporary waiver program that was already in place.
The ACF said the exceptions are being offered based on public comments over the proposed rule. According to the ACF, more than half of the commenters expressed support for the waivers, citing concerns over the potential loss of partnerships with school districts and loss of transportation services for Head Start children. Two commenters suggested the waivers be approved for a period exceeding one year. Three others suggested eliminating the two requirements altogether.
Not all commenters favored the waivers, however. One respondent opposed the waivers over safety concerns. Another said that enough time has passed since the regulation was published that all Head Start programs should now be in full compliance.
The ACF said it approved the waiver request mechanism “to address the circumstances faced by individual agencies related to these issues.” It added that it will require waiver seekers to justify their requests and to describe their efforts to achieve full compliance. The ACF will publish guidance related to the circumstances under which those requests will be approved. Head Start agencies that have achieved full compliance will not receive waivers “except in extreme circumstances.”
The rule, which finalizes the provisions of the proposed rule published on May 30, 2006, also revises the definition of child restraint system to remove the reference to weight because it now conflicts with federal motor vehicle safety standards.
Originally, the rule said that children weighing 50 pounds or less had to be seated in a height- and weight-appropriate child safety restraint system. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has since raised the weight threshold and is considering raising it again. Consequently, the ACF will require all children, regardless of weight, to be seated in a child restraint system.
One Head Start grantee expressed dismay that funding is not available to purchase more child restraint systems for those children who will require these systems under the revised definition. The ACF noted that a considerable amount of money has been made available to grantees to achieve compliance since the publication of the proposed rulemaking.
Based on a recommendation by NHTSA, the ACF also included in the final rule a formal reference to the exclusion of lap belts for use by small children. The final rule officially sets Dec. 30 as the effective date for the required use of school buses or allowable alternative vehicles.