“Preschool shouldn’t be like this,” Erika Griffin says of the Early Learning Center in Salem, Mass., where children have their own desks and their own bins of toys that only they can play with – all to protect them from spreading COVID-19.
“When the kids need a break from sitting at their desks, the teachers put Hula Hoops on the ground six feet apart and each child sits in their hoop so they can play on the floor, just to give them a break from sitting at their desks. At the end of every day, those toys are sanitized. We work hard to come up with small, creative solutions, and the kids have been great with that.”
Griffin is both a City Connects Coordinator and a school adjustment counselor at the Early Learning Center, and she’s used to children sitting at large tables, socializing, and sharing toys.
But what Griffin’s work shows is that even during a global pandemic, City Connects continues to work in early education settings.
As we’ve blogged, the core of the City Connects practice remains the same, whether it’s implemented in preschools, elementary schools, high schools, or colleges. Coordinators conduct whole class reviews with teachers and in consultation with families to assess the strengths and needs of each and every child.
“You can have a kid come to preschool who’s doing well academically; they know their letters, numbers, colors, and shapes. Their strengths seem to outweigh their needs. But they might have something significant going on at home that we would not have identified without doing a whole class review.”
One difference in early education settings is that there’s a heavy focus on families.
“Because our program is small,” 100 kids before Covid, and roughly 60 now, “I have regular contact with parents at drop-off and pick-up,” Griffin says. “Because the kids are little, parents reach out more. They’re worried about their children’s first school experience. That’s a real strength that a lot of our families bring, strong communication and interaction with us. When I do a whole class review with a teacher, I’m bringing the knowledge I have about families.”
“I also have a lot of contact with our teachers. I’m in and out of their classrooms since I don’t have to worry about interrupting a lesson in the same way that I would in an elementary school setting. The teachers and I are having running conversations about the kids. The whole class review formalizes that process.”
The pandemic has added extra pressures. Last March, the Early Learning Center closed along with the rest of the district.
Griffin implemented City Connects remotely, using Zoom for meetings with teachers. She discovered – as other coordinators have – that online meetings often make it much easier for parents to participate.
Reopening the early learning center has meant working even harder as a team.
“The teachers have done a phenomenal job. We put together a task force over the summer to talk about how we could open safely in September,” Griffin says.
Reopening full time was crucial because many of the Early Learning Center’s students have special needs, and many are English language learners.
Since the pandemic, challenges have grown.
“Families need more financial assistance and help with food insecurity. Before the pandemic we had identified a handful of kids who might need additional food resources and we would send them home extra food with them.
“Since COVID hit, Salem has been identified as a district where all students are eligible for free lunch. So we have more food available to help the additional families who are coming forward.
“We’re also seeing more families losing their jobs, so we have helped with holiday assistance. I give out gift cards, and we have agencies that donate toys. This past winter, we gave out more holiday gifts than we ever have before.”
The donating agencies are community partners who include the Salem Children’s Charity, Toys for Tots, local fire department stations, the Salem High School Marine Corps Junior ROTC, and Salem State University which sponsors a Giving Tree.
“Bringing these resources together to help families with young children weather the economic, social, and health impacts of the pandemic is critical. “Child development does not stop for COVID-19,” explains Dr. Mary Walsh, Executive Director of City Connects and Daniel Kearns Professor of Urban Education and Innovative Leadership at the Boston College Lynch School of Education and Human Development. “These resources provide critical nutrition and clothing, but they also help to reduce family stress and create a more stable developmental context around children who are in a critical period of child development. And families know they have someone, like Erika, to turn to.”
As the world works through the pandemic, Griffin sees a brighter future ahead.
“I think things are going to get better as more kids come back to the program. There’s a lot of talk about expanding our early childhood program and making it more accessible to the community. Families want their kids back in school, even the little ones.”
And when they do come back, Griffin will be ready, using her relationships with families and the City Connects model to make sure her preschoolers are safe, healthy, and thriving.