COVID-19 and the Head Start Community

Resuming Summer and Fall In-person Services: Supporting Children’s Learning and Development

Teacher gardening carrots with a toddler at a daycare facilityHead Start programs that choose to use their supplemental funds to deliver summer learning programs have a unique opportunity to support children and families. They can offer high-quality experiences that promote school readiness and successful transitions to kindergarten. Explore strategies programs can use to prepare to support children's health, safety, learning, and development through summer programming and fully in-person services.

As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, programs will need to follow the most up-to-date health and safety guidelines from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and local health departments. Staff should review CDC and local government websites frequently for any updates. Programs can also consult their Health Services Advisory Councils (HSACs) as they plan and deliver summer services.

Ensuring Children's Learning 

When programs closed or switched to hybrid programming, it disrupted many families' regular routines and made it hard for them to receive the support they need. Children and families may also feel anxious about the transition to kindergarten — especially if they didn't get the support they expected leading up to the move to a new school. Plan your return to full in-person programming to address these concerns. Provide safe and nurturing learning environments. Offer interactions and experiences that are responsive to children's interests and needs. Work with families to support children's learning and development across all Head Start Early Learning Outcomes Framework (ELOF) domains.

Preparing for Transitions into and Out of the Program

Whether you’re planning for in-person summer programming or full in-person services in the fall, transitions into and out of programs will be different than those prior to the closures. Children may have been home or engaged in hybrid programming for months. Some may feel anxious about returning to in-person services while others feel happy and relieved to come back to a familiar space. Some may be having their very first experience in a classroom. There may be changes in staffing, class sizes, or drop-off and pick-up routines. There will likely be increased emphasis on cleaning and wearing protective equipment, such as gloves and face masks. 

Education staff and families are likely to have many questions and related anxiety about the program and what transitioning will include. It may be helpful to think of the move into the in-person program as you would a child and family's first transition into any program. Children will need some time to adjust to new routines. They may have some separation anxiety when their family leaves. Parents may have previously entered classrooms to drop children off. However, due to the pandemic, parents may not be permitted to enter. Programs will need extra staff to support children and parents at drop-off during the early days of in-person services.

Children might also seem like they've lost some of the developmental milestones they met before the pandemic, such as language skills or self-care routines like using the restroom independently. Some children eligible for services under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) may have gone longer without diagnosis and resulting services. Work with your local Part B and Part C providers to make referrals and support families through the Individualized Family Service Plan (IFSP) and Individualized Education Program (IEP) process. Children will also have new strengths and there will be many important family stories. Try not to compare children to other years. See each child and family for who they are and provide individualized support and recognition. While some children may seem “behind”, many will make rapid progress. 

Using Summer Programming for Transitioning to Kindergarten

Children and families may feel anxious about the transition to kindergarten. Programs offering summer services can support children as they get ready to move to a new school. In home-based programs, work with families to provide similar routines and activities in the home that can prepare them for the structure of kindergarten in the fall. Communicate with families about their concerns related to transitioning into and out of your program. Provide children with a safe, nurturing, and responsive learning environment that encourages them to explore and learn.

Creating Nurturing Learning Environments and Engaging Experiences

Research shows that kindergarten teachers are more likely to perceive children from programs that support social and emotional development as successfully transitioning to kindergarten. To prepare children for this ultimate transition, offer nurturing and engaging learning environments that support their social and emotional development, approaches to learning, and higher order thinking skills. Look to your program's curriculum when planning schedules, small- and large-group activities, and learning environments. In home-based programs, work with families to jointly plan home visits and socializations that target social, emotional, and approaches to learning skills to ready preschoolers for kindergarten.

Using Outdoor Learning Opportunities

Summer is a wonderful time to take learning outdoors. Outdoor spaces provide many opportunities for children to explore and learn using their whole bodies. There may be some changes to outdoor spaces and routines, such as staggering groups to reduce the number of children on the playground at the same time. If playground equipment isn't available for use, there are many other ways to support development and learning while enjoying the outdoors. The spring and summer months are ideal for sand, water, and messy play, including planting and caring for gardens. Children can sing, dance, play musical instruments, and use materials that support gross and fine motor skills. Plan outdoor learning opportunities that support development and learning across ELOF domains and encourage families to do the same Make sure shade is available, sunscreen is applied, and water is available. Stay inside during electrical storms and if air quality is poor.

Supporting Children Who Are Dual Language Learners (DLLs) and Their Families

As you help children ease back into program settings and prepare to transition to kindergarten, use language that is familiar and comforting. Talk with children in their home language, whenever possible. If you are not fluent in the family's home language, this is a good time to partner with families and learn important words or phrases you can use throughout the day. Download the Ready DLL app on your smartphone to learn helpful words and phrases in Spanish, Arabic, Mandarin, and Haitian Creole.

Communicating with Families

Communication with families is key, especially during this transition period. Drop-off and pick-up routines may have changed. You may not have the same opportunities to interact face-to-face with families. Families may still be worried about a home visitor coming into their home. Plan to continue communicating with families using the strategies that have worked throughout the pandemic. Remember, families are managing new routines as well. Help them ease in by talking about their concerns. Ask them about their routines. Share strategies to help families and their child transition back to the program and into kindergarten. Ask them about their capacity and communication preferences.

In home-based programs, be sure to adhere to your program's health and safety procedures while on in-person home visits. Talk with families ahead of time and be responsive to requests they may have, such as removing shoes, wearing a face mask, or meeting outside during home visits. Partner with families to prepare children for these changes and calm any fears they may have about the face mask. Explain what it is and how the mask is keeping their home visitor, themselves, and their family safe from germs. If providing virtual home visits, encourage families to talk about and include health and safety practices during daily routines in the home and outdoors. 

Meeting Your Own Needs

Remember to take care of your emotional and physical health and encourage all staff to do the same. Get vaccinated if medically possible. After a period of social distancing, you might have lingering concerns about physical closeness. It's important to remember that young children need physical touch to feel supported and safe, including hugs, high-fives, and comforting. Consider taking measures in addition to standard health and safety practices. For example, you might wear long-sleeved shirts or smocks that you can change throughout the day. Wash yours and children's hands frequently and talk with families about health and safety practices at home. Patience and humor, the support of colleagues, compassion for yourself and others are all critical.