Adapting to COVID-19 by keeping the creative wheels turning.
FROM “GERMAPHOBIA” TO COMPLETE SHUTDOWN
Right before the world shut down, I turned into an overnight germaphobe, sanitizing surfaces around our office, printing informative signs from the CDC, passing out latex gloves, and haranguing coughing colleagues to go home. I questioned whether I was overreacting to constant news alerts popping up on my phone. I worried, but never once did the possibility of a complete shutdown cross my mind.
Those first few weeks felt profoundly confusing, unsettling, and stressful for our whole team. We canceled classes a few days before spring break, thinking we may return to normal in our classrooms after a few weeks. Then it seemed like the situation changed hourly. Our team jumped into survival mode, every member doing their best to process information quickly and pivot accordingly.
IS THERE SUCH THING AS “PERFECT TIMING” FOR A PANDEMIC?
Reflecting on the last few months, Faridhe Rodriguez, the director of Valley Settlement’s Little Bus Preschool program, says, “this happened at kind of the perfect time, toward the end of the [school] year…if this had happened in August, I don’t know if we would have had the outcome that we had.” A planned spring break gave our team two weeks to figure out how to deliver programs virtually. Parents already had a relationship with their teachers and trusted them to guide them through a new way of learning. Children loved their teachers, and were friends with their classmates. This foundation of trust meant that our preschool didn’t lose a single student from March to June.
VALLEY SETTLEMENT – MAKING A BIG DIFFERENCE
The Little Bus Preschool is one of six Valley Settlement programs. You’ll find photos here of our three “Little Buses,” gutted and retrofitted as mini preschool classrooms on wheels. The program serves 96 children, largely from Spanish-speaking families, who would otherwise lack access to preschool. Parents participate in in-person home visits and quarterly Family Nights. They also work on ‘homework’ assignments, including nightly reading and weekly activities. In a normal year, our busses travel to neighborhoods throughout the Valley serving families with free bilingual accessible preschool.
When the Coronavirus struck our Valley, many parents were suddenly out of work. Valley Settlement conducted two needs assessments with program participants in March and April. In the first survey, we learned that 51% of our participant households had at least one wage-earner out of a job. By April, that number jumped to 87%. Parents felt stressed. Not just about lack of income, rent, and food, but also about how to keep their kids from falling behind.
What parents requested most often in those early weeks was activities so their children could continue learning. Volunteers jumped into action. The Art Base and Carbondale Arts worked with Valley Settlement and others to put together hundreds of bags. Imagine puzzles, books, finger paints, balls, art supplies, and school projects dropped off at parents’ homes.
DEFINING THE “NEW NORMAL”
The Bus team wanted to keep things as close to their normal preschool experience as possible. So they decided to keep up with the same lesson plans. Every Monday, teachers dropped off a weekly bag of activities, waving to families through screen doors and windows. Then teachers filmed themselves leading a circle time, demonstrating an activity, or reading a book. One week, instead of group-learning about planting and gardening, teachers delivered sunflower seeds, soil, and little pots to children’s doorsteps. Then teachers made videos showing children how to plant the seeds and watch them grow. Parents shared videos and photos of their children doing activities and learning at home via a WhatsApp group. We planned a drive-through preschool graduation, as shown above.
Still, it’s not the same. “Parents are doing a good job at home,” says Faridhe. “But as an educator, I really worry about kids missing school for so many months and how that’s affecting their development. We know that those social interactions are huge at this age. The best part of my job is being with the kids every day. Not having that is really hard.”
FINDING A SILVER LINING
Seeing what our families were going through, it was hard for me to imagine a silver lining. That silver lining appeared in my inbox one day, in an Excel spreadsheet of all places. We had asked our parents: “What did you learn about yourself or your children in the last few months?” The answers were, in a word, beautiful.
I have learned that despite the difficulties that have arisen, if we are united as a family we can overcome them.
I have learned from my son that children need our time to make them happy every day. About myself, that dedicating more time to them and less to work has also made me happy.
During these months, my son has taught me to be a better father to him.
The economic impacts of this pandemic will be felt for a long time. But the lessons learned – about priorities, about family, about what is really important in life – will be felt for generations. This pause, this shutdown, has given us an opportunity to reflect. We turned inwards to our homes and to the people closest to us in a time of uncertainty and crisis. As I prepare to be a new parent myself (with our little arrival due in January!), I will remember the words of our Bus parents. Children need our time and our love. But just as importantly, we need them.
LEARN MORE about Valley Settlement.
LEARN MORE about the Little Bus Preschool.
FIND MORE nonprofits serving our community’s families and children. MP’s HELPING HANDS.