The school year has been underway for a month in Orange County, but it’s not too late for children to enroll in Head Start.
That’s the word Heidi Lohr, early childhood programs supervisor for Orange County Head Start, wants to get out to parents of young children. Head Start is a federally funded, pre-school education program for children of lower-income families.
Early Head Start is for children up to age 3, and Head Start, for children 3 and 4 years old. The county has three locations: the Taylor Education Administration Complex, Gordon-Barbour Elementary School and Locust Grove Elementary School.
Folded into Head Start is the Virginia Pre-School Initiative (VPI), a state-funded program for 4-year-olds, which Lohr said has slightly different income requirements. Children in VPI take part in classes alongside those in Head Start; the only distinction is in the source of funding.
The pandemic has affected enrollment in the local Head Start program. Lohr said total enrollment currently stands at 72% of capacity. She noted, however, that enrollment has risen since August, when it was at 65%. And enrollment in VPI is at 100%.
Like children in kindergarten through twelfth grade, those in Head Start can attend online five days a week or attend in-person part time (two days a week, in their case) and online the remainder of the week.
At TEAC, there are 57 students enrolled (in VPI, Head Start and Early Head Start) including 17 in the all-virtual program. At Gordon-Barbour, 37 children are enrolled, including nine who attend online only, and at LGES, there are 56 children, with 14 attending online only.
Judy Anderson, director of elementary instruction for the Orange County Public Schools, said she hopes more parents will enroll their children in Head Start once they see that the program is running smoothly, with pandemic health and safety protocols firmly in place.
Lohr noted that in the past three weeks, she’s had seven parents switch their children from all-virtual participation to the blended model, which includes two days of in-person attendance—a sign those families are comfortable with the new protocols, which include twice-daily temperature checks, frequent sanitizing of surfaces and physical distancing.
Although Lohr allowed that physical distancing isn’t always possible among very young children, she said, “We’re monitoring their health hourly.”
Teachers are wearing masks to prevent the spread of germs. Lohr said no one insists that the children wear masks in class, though masks are required on school buses. She added that some children wear masks during class because their parents have instructed them to do so.
During the pandemic, children in the blended version of Head Start attend in-person two days per week. The remainder of the week, they participate in activities at home along with their all-virtual classmates.
This year, the county provided Chromebooks to families of Head Start children. Although alternative means of instruction (including books) are available to those without reliable internet or no desire to use the computers, Lohr said the laptops accommodate Zoom sessions, including “circle time” when children read aloud to each other, work on learning to count, discuss the weather and upcoming birthdays and show each other their art projects, among other activities.
During their virtual gatherings, the children also can “share what they’ve been doing at home,” Lohr said. She added that parents are very involved in their children’s participation in the online classes and other virtual activities.
Once the pandemic hit last March, Lohr’s job changed. She spends more time than in the past doing paperwork, keeping a vigilant eye on the program’s health plan and “answering questions from worried parents,” though those calls have dropped off in recent weeks.
She said she tells parents concerned about the impact of the public health crisis on the program, “Our staff is very dedicated to the health and safety of their kids. We don’t want anyone to get sick.” And besides, she pointed out, her staff’s health is an important factor in the mix: “If anyone [in the program] gets sick, there’s the potential we could get sick.”
On a practical level, she now scours the market for items like paper towels and sanitary gloves, both of which are harder to get than they used to be. When one reliable source announced delays in shipment, she had to turn to other online retailers.
Lohr is enthusiastic about the job she has held for about a year and a half. And she wants parents to know Head Start has a lot to offer their children, even—maybe even especially—during the public health crisis: “I really want people to know this is a fun place and we’re here to educate their children. We’re here every day, working hard, and we want them to trust us.”
For more information, call the Head Start office at 661-4470.
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