By Georgia Early Education Alliance for Ready Students (GEEARS)
The COVID-19 pandemic is an unprecedented public health and economic crisis, one of the most daunting challenges our country has ever faced. Here at GEEARS, we have been busy advocating for the health and safety of the early education community, and working to secure state and federal funding to stabilize the child care sector. (Find additional resources for families and early childhood providers here.)
The child care sector in Georgia is hurting along with other small businesses across the country. We are thankful for small steps that are being made to help child care programs. For example, the Department of Early Care and Learning (DECAL) continues to make CAPS subsidy payments and pay lottery-funded pre-K providers regardless of whether they are open or closed. The federal CARES Act will provide some relief to providers who quality.
Despite the trying times all of us now face, I have found comfort in the example set by the courageous doctors, nurses, public safety workers, grocery store employees, and all the other “essential” workers keeping us safe during these difficult times. I have also been comforted and inspired by the continuing efforts of our early education community.
Teachers throughout the state have been leading virtual classrooms, and DECAL has made online resources available to support early learning during this difficult time. Many school systems throughout the state are also providing meals that students depend on to keep them from going hungry. The Atlanta Speech School is also offering free online preschool to help children continue to grow during this time.
Atlanta Public Schools is providing emergency student meals at designated anchor sites offering three food service supports including breakfast, grab-and-go lunches, fresh produce, and nonperishable goods. From 10 APS locations, volunteers pack the food, which is then delivered by bus daily from 7am to 12pm. Hands On Atlanta, the Atlanta Community Food Bank, Goodr, and other sponsors are managing the effort.
Many of the Atlanta Early Education Ambassadors, who throughout the school year communicate in the City of Atlanta with community members about the value and benefits of high-quality early education for young children, have been working tirelessly to support the food distribution effort.
“We are assisting with breakfast, and lunch distribution during a very crucial time,” said Atlanta Early Education Lead Ambassador Ericka Smith. “All of the recipients are extremely grateful, which lets me know that we are on the right path!”
During more normal times, the Clarke County School District Early Learning Center manages programs for Head Start, Early Head Start, Pre-K, and Preschool Special Education classrooms and programs for approximately 1,200 children in the Athens area and approximately 350 children at the Early Learning Center.
But after temporarily closing its doors due to the COVID-19 public health crisis, the Early Learning Center is not only offering distance learning and school lunches for their students, but also providing telehealth counseling and parenting support services for their families and staff.
Since Monday, April 6, families and staff have access to daily online support through individual and group meetings with a mental health consultant in Spanish and English to help them feel less isolated as they manage changing schedules, caregiving routines, and safety concerns. They are able to come together in a calming online environment, where they can safely discuss the challenges and fears they’re facing. This “Stronger Together” campaign is modeled on a similar initiative in Wisconsin and incorporates the cornerstones of the Circle of Security Intervention, Head Start programming, and trauma-informed principles.
“We are trying to, first and foremost, give space for people to connect to one another,” said Dr. Trasie Topple. “We’re focusing on social-emotional health for young children and helping families that might be isolated by connecting them with each other and their community.”
During times of uncertainty, predictability in relationships and services help build resilience. She added: “We’re going to be here, every day. They can count on that.”
In Albany, an area hit particularly hard by the virus, the Southwest Georgia Community Action Council program serves about 2000 children in 17 counties. Last week, the Council staff went out and delivered food to their families in Albany with elderly residents who cannot leave their homes.
We are asking everyone to thank the early childhood professionals who are working every day, either in person or virtually, to provide connections and support for children and families.
With their help and yours, we can begin to see more bright spots emerge.