Head Start programs, teachers adapting to COVID-19 pandemic changes

Local News

SEVIERVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) — The coronavirus pandemic will mean changes ahead for nearly 1,000 preschool children enrolled in local Head Start programs this fall.

WATE 6 On Your Side’s Don Dare visited a Head Start center in Sevierville this week where teachers were preparing their classrooms.

Head Start is a federal program for eligible children ages 3 months to 5 years that helps them prepare and succeed in school. Kids who attend Head Start participate in a variety of educational activities, receive free medical and dental care and have healthy meals and snacks.

But COVID-19 will change the way these programs will be delivered.

Head Start teachers will be rolling out a new look for the entire pre-school program when it resumes in a few weeks. The center in Sevierville is one of 35 Head Start facilities in an eight-county area supported by the Douglas-Cherokee Economic Authority.

Among the changes, school will be delayed two weeks, classes begin Aug. 24. The state has required fewer kids in the classroom, so classes will be smaller.

“Normally, there are 20 children in this classroom. They have a recommendation that we have no more than 10 children. So we will be serving no more than 10 in a classroom like this.  The remaining children will be served virtually or remotely,” Curt Amos, Douglas-Cherokee Head Start director, said.

In May, we reported how Dakota Human, a four-year old Head Start student, watched his teacher Sabrina Hutson on Facebook.  That’s because classes at the center were cancelled in mid-March at the beginning of the pandemic.

Kris Human said the virtual classes kept her son on track preparing him for kindergarten. Some of the same online technology used in last spring will be offered to more than 300 head start students this fall.

“We will be sending activities through email, text messages whatever the family has access to, we want to try to utilize that and meet them. where they are. We are trying to be flexible and  
help the families in what ever way they have access to,” Tonya Purkey, Head Start Curriculum director, said.

Other changes include:

  • There will there be no sand in the sand box. Instead, it will be filled with confetti.
  • Play-Doh and crayons will be individually packed, no longer will they be shared among the children.
  • Keeping children safe from contracting the virus is high on the priority list.

“And we are going to socially distance in the classroom and teach our children how to socially distanced and how to wear a mask. They’re not going to be required to wear the mask, but teach them why we are doing that and give them the opportunity as well,” Amos said.

The revised schedule will include more outdoor time when the weather is good.

Plus, the on-site classroom day will be shorter by 35 minutes.

“Normal before COVID was 6 and a half hours and we had nap time. Well, with social distancing rules that the guidelines have come out with, we are not able to do the nap so our hours have been cut to 5 hours and 55 minutes,” teacher Sabrina Hutson said.

The new curriculum will likely be a challenge, but the course director says her teachers will be ready.

“This is definitely a new adventure for me and one for the books. But I think it is a time for us to meet the challenges … and this is where our families need us right now,” Tonya Purkey said.

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