By Beverly Gould

As this new school year begins, it is still unclear to what degree we are finished with COVID and what that will mean for young children and families. We’d like to look back and see how one early childhood program serving infants, toddlers, and preschoolers successfully traversed the COVID-19 pandemic. I spoke with Ms. Tanya Krien, Vice President of Early Childhood Education at The Child Center of NY, a multi-service agency that serves 40,000 New York families each year, about how the organization was able to meet the needs of their early childhood families, and what they are looking forward to at the start of the 2021-22 academic year.

The Early Childhood Education (ECE) division of The Child Center of NY encompasses Early Head Start, Head Start, and ParentChild+, a home-based literacy program for children 0-3 (featured in this video: The pandemic hit The Child Center’s clients hard from the start. The passing of a much-loved Head Start staff member to the virus in April 2020 at the very beginning of the pandemic deeply affected both staff and families. Some families, like Melinda’s family, lost loved ones of their own.

The pandemic also had a disproportionate economic effect on our clients, many of them headed by workers in the service industry: in restaurants, as house cleaners, manual laborers, or home health aides. They were the first to be let go from their jobs, and most likely to have no safety net. Recognizing that the families and children in their programs would be extremely vulnerable to the shutting down of the city and the stagnant economy, Ms. Krien explained, “The Child Center focused on the basics of survival. The senior management of the agency quickly pivoted to create systems and procedures that offered a lifeline for the primarily undocumented families that they serve in the Early Childhood programs.”

The ECE programs quickly switched to a completely remote model, training all staff on the uses of technology and providing Chromebooks for many staff and families who were either without adequate technology or sharing one device among many family members. They created surveys to immediately assess the concrete and technological needs of each family and utilized informal means of communication to reach those families who did not respond, such as emergency contacts, neighbors, and other parents. With food insecurity being a major problem, an alliance was made with an emergency food pantry — New York Common Pantry — that still continues to provide food weekly for families in need. Through this partnership, ECE sites distributed 4,428 bags of food to 1,912 families across divisions in the first year of the pandemic. Early Childhood programs also gave out 113,988 diapers, 199,840 wipes, and 1,946 engagement kits with books and other learning materials through 2021. And through private funding, the agency was able to raise over $755,500 in direct cash assistance to sustain struggling families who often were not eligible for any other aid.

Simultaneously, teachers and home visitors maintained consistent virtual contact, seeing parents and children at flexible hours, taking into account the need for parents to simultaneously address the needs of children aged 0-5 as well as support their school-aged children and to do work wherever possible during the day. Staff delivered books and supplies to families to use with their infants and toddlers. Learning materials such as paper, scissors, crayons, and glue were sent home in order to avoid any hardship for the parents of Head Start children. In the Early Head Start home-based programs, instead of a weekly 90-minute visit, parents were seen twice weekly for a half hour, and socializations were scheduled more flexibly and remotely. Attendance increased, since families were eager to connect with each other, and the program staff made it as easy as possible. Preschool families were seen virtually, both individually and in groups, so that the children could see their friends and their classrooms, which resulted in parents feeling more connected to their children’s education.

In planning for the in-person reopening in August 2021, the program set up town hall discussions with all staff, exploring what they needed to feel safe transitioning back into the program, and thereby being able to project confidence to the families. Their feedback, along with the incoming safety regulations, has been guiding policy. Class size has been reduced to reflect safety standards and protocols. Extra cleaning supplies have been obtained, temperature scans were purchased, and professional cleaning equipment was acquired, allowing custodians to cleanse any classroom where a positive Covid test result required specialized attention. Anything in the classroom that could not be easily disinfected, such as rugs, cloth dolls, etc., were removed or replaced by more easily sanitized versions. A Head Start staple, family style dining, had to be discontinued, for the sake of safety. Duplicate toys were obtained and each child had their own bag of toys, such as play dough, in order to minimize possible transmission. The children have surprisingly been cooperative about wearing their masks, with just one child exempt from the requirement due to sensory issues. Checklists were created to ensure regular handwashing.

The changes in the Head Start contract from ACS to the DOE have resulted in the school year beginning earlier. Some things are slowly returning, such as tooth-brushing and allowing parents to enter the building, as enhanced cleaning protocols remain and vaccine mandates are increasing the number of vaccinated staff.

Ms. Krien described how the staff participated in many webinars and worked to synthesize all of the learning opportunities to make things come together for the programs at The Child Center. She stated that it has been the strong relationships built among staff, parents, and children that allowed them to continue to stay connected and provide much-needed support and services to their community.