Today’s guest blog is written by Charles Dinofrio, president and CEO of Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers in Allentown, Pa.
Once schools closed their doors in the spring, everyone associated with education or child care saw their roles change. Families took on a more prominent role as their child’s teacher, some schools became food banks for their community, and as for Lehigh Valley Children’s Centers (LVCC), we became a support hub for our families and community.
Although toilet paper shortages grabbed all the headlines when COVID-19 first hit, safe and supervised spaces where students could attend virtual classes or do homework have also been in short supply as a result of the pandemic. As child-care providers and educators who value collaboration with any group who can help support our children, our team knew that we could provide not only a safe space but supplemental education services by connecting families, districts, and our child-care centers. Here’s what we’ve learned so far.
When faced with major challenges, look to collaborate first.
As child-care providers, we’re in the business of filling the gaps in care for families, so we’ve always been committed to working with the people and institutions that make up children’s worlds. This tradition spans the 50-year history of our organization, beginning when our founder, Judy Chase, partnered with local school districts to run a teen-parent program designed to provide safe child care for parents finishing their high school education. This partnership continues to produce successful outcomes for students and their children.
Fast forward to 2020. When the pandemic hit, we had to pull together all of our resources to continue to support our staff, families, and communities. Even when most of our programs were closed, we held weekly remote trainings to update staff on new policies and procedures and other issues we knew would arise out of these uncertain times. We continued to partner with our local educational services agencies (Colonial Intermediate Unit 20 and Carbon Lehigh Intermediate Unit 21) to help keep services flowing to our children. We worked with Unconditional Child Care, a behavioral-health organization local to the Lehigh Valley, designing virtual meetings and also offering in-person opportunities for the most-needed observations and services for children.
We understand the importance of partnering as a first-choice solution. This enables our organization to provide more supports and resources to our families and the community we serve. Being on the same page with school districts and other agencies allows our community to maximize resources while serving our families.
Putting Competition Aside for Community
As with many of the challenges raised by the pandemic, providing safety and support for school-age children whose schools were operating remotely required a communitywide response. That’s why we partnered with the Greater Valley YMCA (GVY), which many would have considered a competitor of ours in the past. Like us, GVY has decades of experience providing homework support and recreation for our community youths. What is different with this new partnership is that we are now focused on facilitating remote learning.
While our state, Pennsylvania, was still in the red phase of pandemic response—the most restrictive stage of business and school closures—four of LVCC’s facilities and six of GVY’s offered child care to essential workers. Since then, many more of our facilities are up and running, so together we’ve launched an effort not just to provide child care and remote education support but to enlist other organizations to join us in providing those essential services.
Effective safety plans require coordination with all stakeholders.
Safety has always been the first concern at both LVCC and GVY, but that concern is of course heightened these days. To ensure the safety of all our children, class sizes are limited, and children only interact with limited staff. We’ve become fanatical about handwashing and we check temperatures frequently.
LVCC and GVY serve children across multiple school districts—a total of 17, to be exact—and each district has its own reopening plan. Some districts are providing an entirely remote learning program, others are offering a combination of distance learning and on-campus classes, and still others are providing traditional in-person instruction or a mix of options for families to select.
These varying district plans impact the level of school-age child care that families need, ranging from traditional before- and after-school programs, to our full-day Edu-Childcare. In an Edu-Childcare program, students whose schools are offering remote instruction can attend one of our sites, where they receive supervision and support as they complete their remote lessons.
The changes we made for safety were pretty straightforward and common sense. But the bigger challenges are the academic and logistical changes to make sure we’re meeting the needs (and the changing plans) of the 17 school districts we serve. With the wide range of scenarios throughout the school districts for reopening that range from in-person to fully virtual with many hybrids in between, ensuring we are meeting the wide range of community and family needs remains a challenge, yet a high priority. Everything is a moving target these days, and we had to adjust some of our learning plans to be flexible enough to hit those targets while ensuring consistency with our partners.
Tech tools can help maintain continuity and accountability.
One of the ways we’ve managed to maintain a sense of continuity with all of our stakeholders is by continuing relationships with existing partners, such as Waterford.org. This early education nonprofit already excelled at remote learning before it became the new normal. Waterford Reading Academy, for example, offers an online curriculum focused on early literacy, numeracy, and STEM concepts.
The software is adaptive, so it meets students where they are and facilitates independent learning. With roots in supporting early learning for students and families who don’t have access to high-quality preschool, Waterford.org is a veteran of distance learning as well as helping parents understand how to become their children’s first teachers. Between their expertise in facilitating learning at a distance and our expertise in providing safe educational spaces and support, we couldn’t ask for a more complementary pairing.
For the red and green phases, students are using Waterford Reading Academy in two 15-minute sessions a day, one focused on literacy and the other on math. We’re also remotely assessing students using a range of tools, including Waterford.org’s Classroom Advantage, as well as Preschool Early Literacy Indicator (PELI), Teaching Strategies GOLD, Ages and Stages Questionnaire (ASQ’s), Positive Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS), and Teach Me To Read at Home.
Find creative ways to maintain the human connection with families.
Recognizing that social engagement is largely missing from online learning, we’ve bridged that gap with “parent cafes.” These are Zoom meetings with five families at a time. They provide support and education for parents and allow them to share questions and concerns with their child’s teacher and other parents. These meetings are designed to increase parents’ investment in their child’s educational success.
We’re also offering in-home activities through “educational enhancement bags,” which include various literacy and math games, manipulatives, and family-friendly activities to reinforce the online learning. Our parents also explore these kits during parent cafes to help increase family engagement in their children’s at-home learning.
Behavioral support agencies have worked with us to implement a virtual screening protocol before they come out to provide services for children in need. These services remain vital for families and children within our centers.
Looking to the Future
If we’ve learned anything from the pandemic, it’s that we never know what tomorrow will bring. Nevertheless, we are quite certain that our partnerships will continue. In fact, we’re looking to recruit other child-care organizations to join us. Like my colleagues in education and child care, my job description has expanded rapidly this year. No matter what challenges the future brings, everyone in our de facto “district” hopes one day soon to provide every student in Lehigh Valley a safe place to learn and play.
The opinions expressed in Peter DeWitt’s Finding Common Ground are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.