Paul Behrman: How Head Start committed to service during a global crisis

This commentary is by Paul Behrman, director of Champlain Valley Head Start, a program of the Champlain Valley Office of Economic Opportunity. 

Champlain Valley Head Start is committed to service, no matter what challenges arise. A little more than a year ago, when the Covid-19 pandemic hit and our world turned upside down, our team quickly adjusted to a “new normal.” We came together as a family, showing compassion for each other as we engaged in our mission to help every child and family reach their full potential. 

The Covid-19 pandemic disrupted education across the country, and so too in the Champlain Valley. In a time of turmoil and confusion, our teaching staff, family support staff, home visitors, cook/maintenance staff, and management team rose to the occasion. 

We came together to quickly address families’ needs in the four Vermont counties we serve (Addison, Chittenden, Franklin and Grand Isle). We developed virtual programming, new health and safety guidelines, and new, innovative uses of technology for supporting the well-being of children and families. 

As we look ahead to a new school year and hope for a full return to in-person teaching, it’s essential to reflect on the lessons we learned in this unprecedented time. 

  • Lesson 1: Virtual learning can be dynamic and successful

Our educators had to pivot to provide high-quality early education in a virtual setting. That took time and adjustment. Additionally, we serve multilingual families, so overcoming a language barrier through a screen was a hurdle we had to manage quickly. 

When working in education, particularly with young children, building relationships with students and their families is key to a child’s success. Establishing relationships via a screen proved to be a difficult task, but our educators’ resilience and compassion never diminished through the ups and downs -— both our organization and our Head Start families are better because of it. 

Our educators found that interactive lessons were still successful via Zoom: From puppet shows to movement exercises to family activities, students received enrichment activities and learning time through our virtual education model. Through Zoom visits with families, we encouraged Head Start parents to be their child’s “first teacher” in partnership with Head Start home visiting staff.  With these new strategies and innovation, we plan to keep virtual services in place as a new enhancement to in-person Head Start and Early Head Start Home Visiting Programs once conditions permit and in-person home visiting is resumed.  

  • Lesson 2: Access to reliable Internet connections and devices is still a critical issue. 

Some Northwestern Vermont areas still struggle with inadequate Internet service, and several families did not have the technology needed to participate in online teaching and learning. We distributed iPads for use by families receiving remote education services and distributed Wifi hotspots to families who did not have reliable Internet access. We will continue to use our network and partnerships to provide ongoing support and access to Internet services for our Head Start families for whom technology is a barrier. 

  • Lesson 3: Food, housing and transportation were additional issues families faced during the height of the pandemic

Head Start family support specialists and home visitors connected families with social services and community resources to help solve problems both inside and outside the home. Our incredible staff was instrumental in helping to support family stability, and in mitigating the detrimental effects of social isolation through these unprecedented times.   

Most recently, we partnered with Feeding Chittenden in a pilot program to address food insecurity and hunger among Head Start families. Families receive a monthly, customized food box that can be either picked up from a Head Start location or delivered straight to the home. Our first rollout was on March 25, and the results were exemplary — families were feeling grateful and, as an organization, we felt grateful to help our families in need.

Champlain Valley Head Start has learned many lessons over the last year, and we’ve modified our education centers and service programs to reflect that. We’re making modifications to our in-person facilities, including upgraded air systems, air filtration, touchless hand sanitizer stations, and touchless appliances. And we’ll continue to integrate technology to be a better support system for our students and families. 

Looking ahead to the next school year, we know things will look different, but through it all, every Champlain Valley Head Start employee brings a commitment to service to children and families. While we aren’t out of the woods just yet, strength and resilience are abundant in our organization. 

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