GULFPORT, Miss. -- The Mississippi State University Extension Service Head Start Program in Harrison County is proving resilient in safely living up to its mission of easing the transition to school for families with young children.
Since learning began in September, teachers and students have been vigilant in their efforts to instill learning in their students while keeping it fun and staying healthy. Careful mask-wearing, frequent hand-washing and social distancing have been part of the school day since the doors opened.
“Since we began in the fall, we kept our ratio of children to 10 per classroom with two teachers,” said Louise Davis, Extension child and family development specialist. “Every child has their own box of school materials, each child has their own circle to sit in during group time, and only two children are allowed at each center at a time. Everything that couldn’t be properly sanitized was removed from classrooms.”
The Head Start program works to prepare families with young children for the transition to school. With children unable to attend because of the pandemic, program leaders found new ways to support children’s education at home.
Elizabeth Thorne, a graduate assistant in the MSU School of Human Sciences, said the Head Start program in Harrison County has not missed a beat through the pandemic. The centers have had to take precautions at different times and quarantine, but learning continued.
“We sent home curriculum bags that included learning materials so our students could continue at home,” Thorne said. “We maintained contact with our families, and offered virtual learning opportunities for the children to ensure that we always provided a high-quality program.”
Since the centers opened, MSU Extension has taken every precaution to keep the learning environments healthy.
“We have portable hand-washing stations at entrances so children can wash their hands as soon as they arrive,” Thorne said. “All children and staff wear masks, even outdoors, and we practice social distancing always, using distance markers on the ground.”
Other safety precautions include allowing only staff and children inside buildings, providing individual sets of learning materials for each student and issuing a set of masks to each student. Additionally, shoe-sanitizing mats are positioned at each entrance to clean the bottoms of shoes coming from the parking lots or outdoor play areas.
“We encourage our parents to practice these safety measures away from the school to give their child the best chance of staying healthy through this pandemic,” Thorne said.
Chaundrea Allen, assistant director of monitoring, compliance and operations for the MSU Extension Head Start Program, said staff were given extensive training on health and safety protocols before the academic year began, and administrators are careful to ensure that these measures are followed consistently.
“All parents were given MSU Extension Head Start COVID-19 protocol during orientation,” Allen said. “We made sure that we expressed to all parents that health safety is a top priority. We also gave parents an overview of all the personal protection equipment that had been purchased for each child.”
Alongside all the safety measures, learning continues in an engaging and fun atmosphere. When the Gaston Point Head Start reopened after quarantine before Christmas, the staff in Gulfport had decorated the entire facility as a winter wonderland.
Jamila Taylor, director of the MSU Extension Early Head Start Program, said the children were delighted to return to class.
“I was in awe of the team effort from the moment I laid eyes on the winter wonderland the teachers created to welcome their students back,” Taylor said. “The teachers we have are amazing with their creativity.”