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Today is the last day for Head Start programs
Doors to close Monday as shutdown continues
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The E.E. Butler Head Start on Athens Street in Gainesville will close on Monday due to the government shutdown. - photo by NAT GURLEY

Head Start assistant teacher Larissa Mathis fought back tears as she thought about her students walking out the door today.

“We are educators,” she said. “We do try to teach these children about life and the real world. There’s a big, real world out there. The government, they’re seeing (the shutdown) in a different light because they think it’s only affecting them. It’s affecting us. So deeply.”

Mathis is referring to the federal government shutdown, which began Tuesday due to an impasse over the budget and new health care law.

Because of this shutdown, nearly 300 Hall Head Start preschool students have no place to go Monday. Ninth District Opportunity’s federal grant for its Head Start program was scheduled to begin Tuesday, but the government closure led to those funds being held.

Head Start receives additional federal funding from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and also from the Georgia Pre-K budget for certain blended learning classrooms.

“However, these are not enough funds to continue operation,” said Kay Laws, Head Start director with Ninth District. Federal grant funding is $19.8 million for the counties Ninth District serves.

The closure leaves parents scrambling for other options for their children.

Parent Lupita Ortiz has a temporary plan for her young son, but is concerned over what an extended shutdown might mean.

“Right now I do have somebody but if she starts working again, I don’t think I have anybody so I will actually have to pay (for child care),” she said.

Ortiz is a student at Lanier Technical College, studying to become a dental assistant. Her husband works full time.

“My husband doesn’t have a high-paying job,” she said. “We barely have enough for the bills. I mean, that would affect us a lot. Day care would be $100 and something a week.

“We would have to limit ourselves a lot more,” she added.

Cristina Garcia also has a child in the Head Start program. Her job allows her flexibility to work from home, but her concern is over her daughter’s routine.

“She’s used to coming and being with other kids and playing,” Garcia said, “and learning different things and expecting to be at school. She’s got those expectations.”

Many work environments do not allow that flexibility, however. Mathis said several parents are struggling to find assistance on short notice.

“I’ve heard quite a few parents saying that if it does come down to (a shutdown), that they’ll probably end up losing their jobs because it’s hard to find (child care),” she said.

The Head Start students aren’t the only ones in the county being displaced.

The special needs preschool class for the Gainesville school system is held in the same building as the E.E. Butler Head Start program. Those students will still be attending school, but they’ve been rearranged somewhat.

All furniture and supplies must be moved out of the E.E. Butler building today. There will be no class Monday and Tuesday of next week.

For Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of next week, the teacher and paraprofessional will serve students at New Holland Core Knowledge Academy. Beginning Oct. 14, the special needs students will be in a classroom at Wood’s Mill Academy.

Transportation will be provided to Wood’s Mill, and meals are also being arranged. However, for next week, the parents are responsible for transportation to and from New Holland.

“We’re just not able to regroup on that on such short notice,” said Gainesville Superintendent Merrianne Dyer. “We’ll have them up and running full time a week from Monday.”

The teacher of that class, Erika Shaw Henderson, said even though classes continue for her students, they will still suffer.

“This time is critical for our children because they are able to learn alongside peers without disabilities,” Henderson said. “Our partnership with Head Start provides a unique opportunity for us to educate our students with special needs in the least restrictive environment.

“Our program will greatly suffer without this vital partnership,” she added. “We can’t replicate what our students learn from their peers.”

Beyond the students, the shutdown also means Head Start employees are left without a paycheck. They found out Wednesday they qualify for unemployment benefits, but family partner Ana Filpo said it’s not enough.

“It’s the applying, waiting for (unemployment) to get kicked through,” she said. “There’s a lot of waiting. Bills don’t wait.”

Mathis agreed.

“Unemployment does not cover our benefits,” she said. “It only covers so much.”

Mathis said her husband can provide for paying bills, while Filpo said she will have no help from family. She said she does not have any children, which helps the situation.

“But even me, as a single person, I’m basically living paycheck to paycheck as it is,” Filpo said.

The parents and teachers with Head Start all expressed optimism the shutdown will end soon. Laws suggested it would take two to three days after the shutdown ends to get the program back up and running.

“I would just love for them to get it together and quit blaming everybody else for their problems,” Mathis said about the federal government. “They’re the ones receiving a paycheck. Not us. You know, they think they’re hurting. They are hurting us.

“They’re not hurting anybody but the children and the families out here busting their tails trying to make a living.”

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