At 55 Years and in a Pandemic, Head Start Is Still Connected

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By Edward Condon, Executive Director
Region 9 Head Start Association

Every year at Head Start’s anniversary, we mark the progress made — now more than a half-century of nurturing our nation’s next generation. The last two months, though, have upended Head Start’s normal. Like every other institution across the nation — and the world — we have been compelled to improvise to survive.

We recently interviewed Head Start teams throughout Region 9. Their response to the COVID-19 shutdown proves we are doing more than just surviving. Our programs, our staffs and — most importantly our children — are staying connected, thanks to that culture of care so embedded in the Head Start concept.

The children are all right because American ingenuity went to work. Teachers — who are pretty versed in changing course as class situations warrant — virtually reinvented themselves. Directors and site managers set aside old processes and — keeping with best Head Start practices — crafted new ways to operate — all in the space of several days. The priority was to help families shelter-in-place and retain Head Start’s connection to children and parents.

Here’s a sampling of what we found across the West as Head Start programs went from center-based to home-based and Early Head Start home visitations turned virtual:

  • Multiple connections were made quickly, in particular getting technology to teachers and parents. “We are connecting parents to wellness programs, activities to engage with children, how to talk about COVID-19 with their children, and how to stay safe,” said Yolanda Gonzales, Director of Head Start, Community Action Partnership of Kern County of Bakersfield, California.
  • Classroom teachers created social media pages, where they post activities, including reading a book every day. “When the shutdown ends, I would like to see our teaching staff be able to continue using their pages as a way to reach out to parents and to keep them engaged in their most important role — their child’s first teacher,” said Cassie Carlstrom, Program Director, Little People’s Head Start, Ely, Nevada.
  • Quickly created activity guides were delivered to the home by staff, mailed, or when applicable, emailed. “We closed our programs on March 16 and by the afternoon of March 19, those packets went out to every one of our parents,” said Denyse Cardoza, Executive Director of Head Start and Early Head Start, KidZCommunity, Placer Community Action Council, in Auburn, California.
  • Newly formed multi-disciplinary teams developed a new curriculum. “We have created a team to engage families: Teaching Our Children From Home—TOUCH. It consists of teachers, home visitors, family advocates, center directors, and managers. They are creating content for social media, YouTube and online to facilitate virtual socialization. We previously used only Facebook to share information with families. We have never used technology this way before,” said Tiffany Alston, Early Head Start Director, Sunrise Children’s Foundation of Las Vegas, Nevada.
  • Programs adopted web-based conferencing platforms to contact clients and meet with other staffers. Teachers are holding one-on-one sessions with individual children. “The notion of nimbleness is extremely important,” said Tony Jordan, Administrator, Head Start, Early Head Start, Migrant Head Start Programs, Stanislaus County Office of Education in Modesto, California. “We are trying to diversify the connections with families. We are using a host of platforms: Zoom, Google Duo and Facetime.”
  • To enroll children for the upcoming school year, programs added online application portals and electronic signatures. “Executing enrollment for the upcoming school year will present challenges as social distancing prevents us from obtaining needed consents and signatures,” said Grant Kogami, Head Start Director, Honolulu Community Action Program Inc. in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Most cheering is how the crisis has energized teams. Said Kern County’s Gonzales, “I am very proud of what the staff has done — they were wary of tech, but they now have embraced it positively.”

At 55 years and in a pandemic, Head Start is invigorated. “We’re going to create our own new normal,” said KidzCommunity’s Cardoza.

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