For the youngest learners, programming will be different this year, but the goals will be the same: connecting families with resources and preparing children for learning.

Michelle Wilkowski is director of the MAHUBE-OTWA Head Start program.

“We’ve been doing lots of planning and waiting on school district plans and also the Minnesota Department of Human Services, Centers for Disease Control and licensing,” she said. “Right now, our plans in the Park Rapids area are for our preschool rooms at Frank White to be running two days a week sessions with reduced class sizes. We’re going to serve a total of 48 kids in person with eight kids and two adults per class and are still taking enrollment applications. If we don’t have an opening they go on a waiting list.”

Children will be divided into group A and B. In group A, children will attend Monday and Tuesday, while group B students will attend Wednesday and Thursday.

“These students will get in-person instruction as long as the district is doing in-person learning,” she said.

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This year’s open house will be virtual, with the first group starting school Sept. 8.

A virtual-only option is also being offered for distance learning with families. In this model, there will be a virtual visit with the teacher once a week over Zoom or a video call with the parent and child together. These families will receive activities to do at home, such as literacy, math and something to do outside together every day of the week.

“We are doing everything we can to meet the needs of families,” Wilkowski said.

Family child care in Hubbard County and the infant toddler center at the Park Rapids Area High School are providing care for families working or going to school.

Keep everyone safe

The program is taking many other precautions to keep staff and families safe.

“We developed a very thorough COVID-preparedness plan with more rigorous cleaning and sanitizing procedures,” Wilkowski said. “We’ve got PPE (personal protective equipment) and all of our staff will be wearing masks. Rooms have been rearranged so kids can be socially distanced as much as possible. With only eight children, it’s easier to spread out for activities, eating and group time.”

Daily health screening questions and temperature checks will be done on all staff and children before they enter the classroom.

“We follow the decision tree from the Minnesota Department of Health as far as exclusions,” she said. “So if staff or children have symptoms or fail the screening we follow that for the number of days before they can return.”

Children are encouraged, but not required, to wear masks.

“We have them available for parents who want their children to wear a mask and for any child who becomes symptomatic during the day while they are waiting to be picked up,” she said. “We also want to teach kids how to wear masks, cover their sneezes and wash their hands. These are teachable moments. If they are going to wear a mask, we want them to do it in a safe way.”

Children will no longer be sharing art materials but instead will have their own markers and crayons and the sensory table will be closed.

Food will be pre-plated rather than served family style, as was done in the past. Only one class of children will go to the playground at a time.

“We’re also trying to keep staff contained to their own classroom as much as possible,” Wilkowski said. “That way, if we do have a positive case in one room, the hope is it will be contained to that room and we’re not exposing those in other rooms.”

Transportation will be limited.

“Our buses will be at or under half their capacity,” she said. “For safety reasons, we’re encouraging everyone who can transport their own children to do that so there’s no exposure. On bus routes, children will be divided by classroom when possible.”

Supporting families

Head Start services begin with pregnant moms.

“I think being a parent in a pandemic is stressful,” she said. “We’re not going into homes right now, but families will get weekly visits this fall that are a mixture of a virtual visit and an outdoor visit in person at least once a month when the weather's nice to build relationships. That’s important with new families especially. The visit might be in a park or in a family’s yard.”

Outdoor visits follow the same screening and safety measures as for the center.

In addition to visits, the Head Start program helps families in many other ways.

“We are there to offer support in any way we can,” Wilkowski said. “We connect families to resources. If a stressor for them is lack of food, we connect them with the food shelf and help them with SNAP benefits. We use a whole family approach, serving the parents and the kids together. We can refer a family to housing programs and finding health insurance, also working on employment or education if that’s their goal. We have increased our contract with Stellher Human Services. We also work with other mental health agencies that make referrals and connect with families who need extra support.”

The Learning Genie pilot program that started with 60 families last year is being expanded to use by all enrolled families.

“It really increases our capacity for family engagement, especially remotely,” she said. “We can send books out that way, messages, parent education materials and parents can correspond with us.

The program keeps families updated on issues related to COVID-19 too through their Facebook page and a messaging system for enrolled families.

For information about enrolling in the Head Start program, call the MAHUBE-OTWA office in Park Rapids at 732-7204 or go to mahube.org for an application to click and submit. A staff member will contact them about enrollment.