To ensure continuity of high-quality educational and other support services for children and families enrolled in the 43 regional locations of the Maricopa County Head Start program operated by the Early Education Division of the Maricopa County Human Services Department, each classroom was modified to promote best practices in health, wellness, and safety. The redesign and mitigation strategies applied were developed through an extensive review process in partnership with the Maricopa County Department of Public Health (MCDPH). The implementation of such measures allowed the Head Start program to continue to operate its classroom environments and offer in-person learning.
Problem or Need for the Program
In addition to the many socio-economic issues that were created and/or exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, the need to physically distance and take extra health and safety precautions in childcare and congregate learning environments were rapidly evolving as we all learned more about the nature of this spreading illness. While Maricopa County prioritized the Head Start teaching staff to receive the vaccination for COVID-19 in January 2021 and for Head Start parents and guardians since February 2021, children ages five and older did not become eligible for the vaccine until December 2021.
Providing a support network during the pandemic was of the utmost concern for Maricopa County Head Start. While the program was able to pivot rapidly during this time to maintain contact with families through the Family Services Team, providing a safe in-person learning environment was paramount. Offering an in-person learning experience provided the ability for children to advance in their social and cognitive development, while at the same time continuing to connect their families to essential services such as meals, supplies, clothing, healthcare screenings, and even referrals to food and housing services.
Description of the Program
In-person learning was restored on June 1, 2021, utilizing a phased-in plan that adhered to the most current Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), State, and local guidance to mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19. The multi-layered plan included:
- 1,700 COVID test kits were provided by MCDPH for staff and families to monitor their health status
- COVID Guidance-specific policies, procedures, guides, routines developed and implemented based on CDC and MCDPH recommendations.
- Multi-disciplinary COVID Work Groups were established to help create policies, procedures, guides, routines including staff representation from all levels of the Maricopa County Head Start and Maricopa County Human Services Department. These groups identified needed supplies and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) for resuming in-person services and assisted with designing classroom and office environments that provided COVID mitigation strategies while preserving the functionality of the learning and caregiving environment.
- Developed and presented more than 10 hours of staff professional development training on COVID policies, procedures, guides, routines to all staff before the return to in-person services.
- Program Assurance Supervisors completed weekly routine quick checks of classroom environments to ensure COVID safety practices were implemented to fidelity.
- Program applications were made accessible on the Maricopa County website to allow for families to complete online at their convenience and enrollment paperwork was converted to electronic fillable forms for families to complete before returning to in-person services, eliminating the need for in-person interaction.
- Signs were posted in English and Spanish regarding mask usage and how to stop the spread of COVID-19.
- Medical-grade adult and children masks were provided to any individual in need.
- All people ages two years and older were required to wear a face mask while participating in Maricopa County Head Start services to help reduce the possible exposure of COVID and to provide additional protection to the unvaccinated population.
- Class and group sizes were reduced to allow for physical distancing. For Head Start-aged children, there were 10 per classroom and for Early Head Start-aged children, there were 8 per classroom.
- Designated drop-off and pick areas were created, including carts with Plexi guards, digital thermometers, and iPads for electronic signatures along with accessible sanitation supplies and traffic cones to mark physical distancing to aid in safe drop-off and pick-up routines.
- Daily health check procedures for staff and children were strengthened to include recommended CDC and MCDPH guidance on who should be excluded from school or work based on COVID type symptoms.
- The number of visitors allowed in the classrooms was reduced to help decrease the possible exposure of COVID and to provide additional protection to the unvaccinated population.
- Existing classroom shelving and chairs were replaced as needed with nonporous shelving and chairs to support rapid sanitation and cleaning processes in all classrooms.
- Enhanced cleaning and sanitation supplies were acquired and used per guidance, including updated cleaning solutions, UV lights, steam mops based on recommendations from the CDC and MCDPH.
- Updated inventory process and converted to an electronic ordering procedure to ensure suitable levels of cleaning supplies onsite at all times.
- Installed non-contact faucets, paper towels, and soap dispensers were authorized.
- Advanced air purifier for each classroom and throughout the office areas to provide clean air to reduce the spread of airborne viruses and germs.
- Hand sanitizer stations were placed outside each classroom and throughout office areas.
- Modified classroom environments to encourage physical distancing and to support fast, effective cleaning and sanitizing methods.
- Reduce the amount of material in the classroom to adjust for the lower group sizes and to allow for effective cleaning and sanitation.
- Introduced sanitation stations to be able to quickly identify toys and materials that needed to be cleaned and sanitized.
- Introduced rotation stations that allowed for toys and materials to quickly be replaced to keep children engaged and involved in learning.
- Replaced all rest time materials with fold-free seamless mats for quick and easy cleaning and sanitizing along with custom-built individualized compartment cabinets format storage.
- Individualized Meal Services to address children’s food insecurity
- Morning snack incorporated in meal service to provide extra nutrition along with breakfast and lunch service
- Plated meals are utilized to reduce cross-contamination and food waste due to spills or dropped food.
- Prioritized teacher access to COVID vaccines when the vaccines first became available.
Responding to Economic Downturn
The COVID-19 Pandemic caused numerous physical distancing measures affecting businesses and organizations throughout the State of Arizona, and Maricopa County was particularly hit hard by these circumstances because the County holds a majority of the population and businesses in the State. Many educational facilities had to immediately turn to virtual learning to remain in compliance with Public Health Emergency Orders and other guidance to stem the spread of COVID-19. This represented an undue burden on families with infants and school-aged children who rely on their educational providers to care for their children while they are at work. The closure of these educational institutions caused some people to lose their jobs, some people had to reduce their hours (and accordingly, their pay), and yet some others had to make the choice to not return to work to be able to care for their children. This disruption on the family ecosystem caused stress for many, placing an additional burden on the household budget and food supply in the case where families depend on free meals at schools to supplement the family food budget. Re-opening in-person learning at Maricopa County’s 41 Head Start and Early Head Start locations was a priority. This was seen as an opportunity to make a significant contribution to facilitate the continuity of education and facilitate the ability for parents to return to work.
Advancing Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
During the COVID-19 pandemic, some of the hardest-hit individuals in the County were those experiencing lower income levels. Since many industries requiring service labor were closed due to public health emergency orders, this portion of the workforce was disproportionately affected whereas people with office jobs or other professional services were able to continue working using technology services. Head Start is a program that welcomes children and families based on income guidelines and other special circumstances such as children who are considered homeless or in foster care. These populations are traditionally underserved and have unique needs that programs such as Head Start serve to mitigate. Re-opening in-person learning was viewed as an opportunity to provide equity in recovery from the effects of the pandemic so families could reestablish their ecosystem, their schedule, and balance employment and childcare to meet their financial obligations – such as rent, clothing food, and transportation.
The Cost of the Program
The entire cost of the program to the County is $19,764,769. However, it is important to remember that this program received funding from the American Rescue Plan Act. Funds were used to ensure adequate supplies of cleaning and hygiene products that were age-appropriate for the children and effective at disinfection in accordance with guidance from MCDPH.
Results/Success of the Program
Year-to-date (January 1 – March 24, 2022) more, the Maricopa County Head Start program has been able to serve
- 742 children
- Provided 147,763 meals
- Completed 490 vision and hearing screenings resulting in glasses for 21 children