Harris County Department of Education Head Start teacher Lois Rose has one hard-and-fast rule in her pre-k classroom, be it virtual or in-person.
“We take care of each other,” Rose said.
As 145 HCDE Head Start teachers and teacher assistants start school virtually Sept. 8 with their students, they begin the year getting to know each other.
A slate of class rules follows. No running or hitting. Take care of others. Rose expects challenges, but she has big plans for the students in her virtual classroom.
HCDE operates 14 Head Start sites and has Early Head Start programs at three of those sites, as well as four additional childcare partnership sites. In total, the program provides comprehensive services for 1,060 families of children ages 6 weeks to 5 years in northeast Harris County. Plans are for in-person classes to resume as COVID-19 numbers decline, HCDE Head Start Senior Director Venetia Peacock said.
Manager Pamela Jones-Lee oversees education and disability services within HCDE Head Start. Teachers use Frog Street pre-k curriculum for both Head Start and Early Head Start. Curriculum is aligned to Texas pre-k guidelines and Head Start early learning outcomes. Teachers are using the Microsoft Teams to meet virtually with students and parents.
“We know that many of our families have other children, so we don’t want to overwhelm them,” Jones-Lee said. “Family service providers see the challenges families are facing and they relate those back to us. Coping with COVID-19 is enough. We want to do what is best for their families.”
Two synchronous or live sessions will be held twice a week for 45 minutes each with the pre-k learners and their parents.
“On a virtual day, parents pick a time frame for class which fits their schedule best, and students attend live sessions,” Jones-Lee said. Outdoor time, music and movement time and art projects are sent to parents as supplemental activities.
Homework packets are picked up Mondays through a drive-through system along with meals made available three days a week. Teachers connect through a wave and a smile.
“Mondays are very important because they enable teachers to touch based and greet students and parents to maintain human contact through safe, social distancing,” Peacock said.
At Early Head Start centers with the infants and toddlers, sessions are one-on-one with families and allow for modeling learning activities with parents first. Later, students join in the sessions and feedback is given by teachers and their assistants.
Home visits allow parents to see what virtual learning will look like. Teachers can tour student home life virtually and get to know the family.
“Home visits allow parents and teachers to set goals,” Jones-Lee said.
Families have generally been very supportive of virtual instruction, she explained. Collectively, virtual learning is important for families because they want their preschoolers to have the social and academic skills to be ready for kindergarten.
Lessons for the pre-k students include a social-emotional component along with literacy and math. A class on friendship allows children to learn about themselves and their family relationships.
During the pandemic, Head Start staff are especially attuned to the social-emotional needs of students.
“So, if a parent relates any kind of learning or social-emotional challenge to the teacher or family service provider, there may be a referral of the child to a specialist or mental health professional,” Jones-Lee said.
Back in the classroom, Rose sees her virtual classroom as an open house of sorts. Last spring, parents would join into Zoom sessions to see what their children were learning and view classroom structure.
When her 4-year-olds get fidgety in the virtual classroom, the tactics are much the same as the regular class.
“We stop and do something fun that they like and then get them back on track again,” Rose said.
Calling it “a blessing” to have a new class of students, the Head Start teacher at the HCDE Fifth Ward Head Start Center is eager to get to know her students and set expectations.
“It will be different,” Rose jests. “We will need to do thumbs up instead of high fives.”
To find out more about enrollment opportunities in HCDE Head Start or Early Head Start, go to www.hcde-texas.org/head-start