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Mel Gravely

How Head Start is Serving Essential Farmworkers during the Pandemic and Beyond

The Adrienne Arsht-Rockefeller Resilience Center is a program under the umbrella of the Atlantic Council, a international affairs think tank. The program focuses on issues of climate change, migration and security. In December, it published an article titled “Migration Matters: Serving Essential Farmworkers During the COVID-19 Pandemic.”

They write that migrant farmworker communities across the United States and around the world have been severely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic. Despite the threat to their health, migrant farmworkers have continued planting and harvesting the crops that feed our country. They are the purest definition of essential workers, but are often overlooked.

Whether they’ve come to pursue the American Dream or to flee conditions in their home country, it is still true that most farmworkers are undocumented, according to the article. This reality means they exist in the shadows of our economy, disadvantaged in their ability to advocate for better working conditions, pay, education, and healthcare. 

It was in the early 1970s that Head Start first recognized the unique needs of the migrant farmworker community and began special programs to serve them. Nearly 50 years later, the program has expanded and is now known as Migrant and Seasonal Head Start (MSHS). The most recent data I could find shows that the program provides services to 28,500 children and their families annually in 38 states.

John Menditto, Chief Legal Officer of East Coast Migrant Head Start Project (ECMHSP) and founder of sister nonprofit The Foundation for Farmworkers, was interviewed in the Arsht-Rockefeller article. He says that like most schools, they were mandated to close their centers at the start of the pandemic and were left scrambling to find ways to serve their families.

“We created a YouTube learning channel, so that our preschool children could continue to participate in educational activities from home,” he explains. “With hunger on the rise, we began weekly food distributions to our families and prepared individualized learning activities so children could continue to learn and develop at home.”

But Menditto writes that despite the challenges, the means may have changed, but the mission hasn’t.

Long before COVID-19 upended everyday life, we wrote how Head Start could be a touchstone for new migrant families in the United States, providing structure and consistency to families at a time when they could really benefit from that structure. This remains true now.

Programs such as ECMHSP said that throughout the pandemic, they continue to connect farmworker families with local resources such as community health centers and legal service providers. But most importantly, they continue to make sure that parents are engaged in their child’s education, even if that education had to happen remotely for a while.

“We seek the “maximum feasible participation” of parents,” he states. “Through such participation, families can see their contributions are vital to our success.”

I think he puts it best when he says, “Head Start is successful because the program recognizes a universal truth: that parents are the first and best teachers of their children.”

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