With very little advance notice to comply with the shelter-in-place order, IHSD followed the rest of the Bay Area and considered how to navigate uncharted waters. On Monday, March 16, IHSD quickly closed its 13 different child care program centers that serve nearly 700 children around San Mateo County. Despite needing to stay at home, IHSD teachers and staff worked diligently to consider how they would flip their infant-toddler, home-based visiting program, and preschool classrooms to support remote learning in order to remain connected with their families.

Phase 1 was an adjustment period while the entire community shifted to sheltering in place. Teachers especially not only had to assess their own tools and resources to continue working from home but also had to consider the resources and needs of the families they served. “We actually had to do a mass ordering of equipment such as additional laptops for teachers and IHSD administrative staff,” IHSD Executive Director Angel Barrios explained. “iPads from the program sites also had to be distributed to teachers at home.” 

Teachers took the first week of instruction on Monday, March 30 to call and check in with each of their families. As a Head Start and Early Head start grantee, IHSD largely serves children from low-income families that are below the Federal Poverty Guidelines. “We had to recognize that all families don’t have the same access to tech equipment and internet access,” Barrios shared. “We had to decide how we were going to meet their unique needs.” The curriculum team then quickly decided on a strategy for remote learning that included expanding the use of Learning Genie (an online tool that connects families with their children’s educators), making YouTube curriculum videos, hosting live circle times every day online, making home activity kits, and ongoing weekly check-ins to each family.

Beyond classroom support, IHSD also prepared several drop shipments of diapers and wipes for families in the infant and toddler programs with one parent having shed tears of gratitude for the support. Staff also created a resource page for families on the website. Main office staff continued operations while adjusting to working from home. “We have other peers unfortunately furloughing and laying off, because private programs are not able to pay their staff,” Barrios shared. “I’m really happy to share [Office of Head Start] announced support to continue paying our staff through the rest of the school year.”  Community partners like Stanford School of Medicine also made a generous donation of supplies. East Palo Alto families received educational materials from BookBuddies for home activities including glue, crayons, white papers, and playdough.

Despite the struggles of working remotely, teachers continued to remain positive while following the shelter-at-home order.  “Both my husband and I are working from home, and our daughter is in class via Zoom for about 5 hours a day,”  East Palo Alto Head Start teacher Gabriela Arroyo shared. “I am very happy that we have the technology and see our wonderful students on weekdays. We are able to give them different activities on YouTube and are able to create videos with my daughter. It’s fun trying to see what ideas we can make and being able to experience that with families.”

Many discovered creative ways to turn their living spaces into remote classrooms. “I created a preschool workplace at home by setting up a picnic table in one of my extra rooms,” Magnolia Head Start teacher Shipra Roy explained. “Today, I used three different sizes of forks and spoons to create patterns during live circle. I was also working on a number sequencing puzzle made from a Cheerios box for next week. The music stand is to hold my phone when I record myself for a video.” 

Others found creative ways with technology to enhance their classroom experience. “I was playing with my computer to pretend I was outside in the summertime, but it was just a virtual background,” East Palo Alto Head Start teacher Lucia Alvarez explained. “I try to stay positive with a sense of humor during shelter in place!”

Staff even created opportunities to build community and offer support with parents. “Laurel [Head Start] site is having a virtual coffee with parents,” Family Services Specialist Alicia Gutierrez shared, “so that they can also have some time to talk to and not just the children during their circle time, which I am enjoying a lot!”

While supplies were back-ordered due to high demand, the management team’s Phase 2 planning involved different meetings with health and licensing authorities to define new protocols. “The only way we would open first is for essential workers,” Barrios explained. “It’s very complicated. How do you do [physically distance] with preschoolers?” 

Teachers and staff were surveyed for their availability to be in the classroom again once the shelter-in-place order was lifted. 10% of the teachers were over 65 years old, and 11.5% of teachers had health conditions, which puts them in the high-risk category. Many of the teachers lived with other household members and expressed fear of exposing themselves to the more vulnerable family members. Despite the circumstances, a handful of teaching staff gladly volunteered to play a role in a pilot classroom for families with essential workers.

On Monday, May 18, IHSD finally opened its door again starting with one classroom at the Magnolia Head Start site in East Palo Alto. Porchea Fort, Britney Hatfield, Mattie Cramer, and Stephanie Merlo were the first four teachers to fill this in-person role for the pilot classroom. When asked to participate, Teacher Stephanie was quick to respond. “I immediately responded ‘YES! I would love to be part of that,’” she shared. “Staying at home was okay, but it isn’t the same as being in a classroom, playing with the children, laughing, smiling, and having something new happen every day!”

Teacher Porchea was thinking about the children’s response to shelter-in-place. “I believe everyone made it important to check on the adults and their mental health that we forgot about the children,” she explained. “Their life changed drastically as well, and I don’t think they fully understand what’s happening. One day we were at school with our friends and the next we can’t leave the house and go to the park. I just wanted to help and make sure they fully understand what’s going on.”

Other teachers closed out their school year with curbside celebrations for the little graduates moving on to Kindergarten. “I am so proud of our teachers and [family service specialists],” Early Childhood Education Coach John Fernandez shared. “They experimented with new, and unconventional strategies to teach preschool. I know that we will come out of this stronger and more dedicated than ever.”

IHSD is still actively planning how the COVID era will impact the summer and new school year. Pandemic adjustments bring a decrease in classroom ratios to follow strict health and safety regulations. Classroom procedures need to follow rigorous cleaning schedules and new rules for teacher and family interactions. Funding resources are also changing due to COVID related spending. Despite the uncharted waters, IHSD has shown to persevere with its 35 years of serving the community, and teachers especially have exemplified incredible resiliency and messages of solidarity. “Here at IHSD,” Teacher Britney Hatfield shared, “we are all family, and that’s the most important thing to remember.”