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Head Start lessons could help schools reopen

News Photo by Crystal Nelson Preschoolers Ammy Urbieta and Alissa Aube play in the sandbox Wednesday as part of Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency’s Head Start program at the former Sunset Elementary School.

ALPENA — A four-week preschool program wrapped up on Thursday, giving educators a glimpse into what returning to school amid a pandemic might look like in the fall.

Educators with Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency’s Head Start program were surprised at how well students adapted to safety protocols prompted by the pandemic, and many of their worries subsided after the two classes began.

“Everybody has their theories about how kids are going to react to masks and having to social distance,” Head Start Area Manager Terry Pagels said. “We got to see firsthand what a group of eight kids is going to do with that. The mask-wearing was one of the biggest surprises. We really thought that kids were going to be very put off by masks on our faces, and they’re not.”

Pagels said educators were also worried that the masks would hide facial expressions, which preschool students need to help pick up on social cues.

“It’s kind of amazing that, even over the masks, the kids know if you’re smiling or if you’re giving them the teacher look,” she said.

Head Start officials decided to offer a summer program for preschoolers who are headed into kindergarten this fall after Head Start received emergency money. Eight students enrolled, and students were broken into two classes, with a teacher and classroom aide overseeing each class.

Pagels said they had to make changes to the classrooms to meet the requirements of Gov. Gretchen Whitmer’s back-to-school guidelines. In addition to spacing children farther apart, many soft items, such as stuffed animals or dress-up clothes, had to be removed from the classroom because they cannot be easily cleaned.

Toothbrushing was also eliminated and the program’s family-style breakfasts and lunches were altered so meals are now served by staff. Pagels said the group used to have to teach preschoolers how to be comfortable with people in their space, but now they’re teaching kids to keep their distance.

Pagels said they underestimated the amount of cleaning that needed to be done and said they needed the three staff for each classroom.

“I was one of the ones that said, ‘Really? Eight kids and three staff? We don’t need three staff for eight kids,'” she said. “With the new cleaning modifications, you do, because we’re constantly going behind them and wiping up blocks and wiping up surfaces that they touch. They’re constantly going behind them and wiping things like that up.”

Pagels said Head Start officials are still working on what preschool will look like in the fall, including how many kids will be in each class.

“We definitely want to service everybody we can, in one way or another,” Pagels said. “There are families who’ve requested they want to be enrolled in preschool, but they don’t want it to be in-person. They want it to be virtual.”

Pagels said Northeast Michigan Community Service Agency Head Start plans on meeting those needs too.

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