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Mel Gravely

Is your ERSEA strategy ready for post-COVID?

Whether we like it or not, some parents will always consider Head Start free babysitting. We can educate parents on the history of Head Start, talk about its focus on the whole child, and espouse its many other benefits. But no matter what, there will always be some parents who are just looking for an affordable place to send their kids during the day so that they can go to work.

And that’s completely ok.

If this pandemic has taught us anything, it’s that the work of childcare providers is some of the most crucial work there is to a well-functioning and economically healthy society. We experienced in real-time what can happen when childcare centers and school close abruptly. Women in particular have been bearing the brunt of the economic fallout, experiencing job losses at a much greater rate — in part due to lack of child care options, and in part due to their disproportionate representation in service-related fields. It will likely take many years for the full economic and social impact of the pandemic on families to be fully realized.

Head Start is not immune to these changes. As many agencies went to remote learning, some parents pulled their children from the program or didn’t sign up in the first place. While Head Start continued to offer a lot of benefits to children in a remote environment, for many parents, the biggest benefit of all — daytime childcare — was enough to make them leave the program.

Since then, many Head Start programs have fully re-opened. However, they are finding that picking up where they left off is not so simple. They’ve found that many parents have already made other arrangements, or, as we’ve seen, one parent is now at home full-time after job loss or voluntary resignation. As a result, some programs are facing low enrollment and are struggling to fill open slots.

Paula Margraf, CEO and president of Community Services for Children in Pennsylvania, wrote an opinion piece for The Morning Call, in which she asks pointedly, “Where are the children?”

“[F]or the first time in our community’s history and mirrored across Pennsylvania, we find that families are not enrolling their children in Early Head Start/Head Start, Pre K Counts and other quality early learning programs,” Margraf writes. “In our Child Care Works program, which provides financial assistance to low-income working parents, there are 30% fewer young children enrolled compared to the same time last year.”

Overall, we’re optimistic that things will return to normal eventually, but the big question is “How long will that take?” I’m certainly not smart enough to answer that for sure, but recent data is encouraging. New guidance from the federal government has asked states to prioritize teachers and child care workers for vaccines. And the Biden administration has said they’ll have enough vaccine supply to immunize every American by May.

For Head Start programs, the next year is going to be crucial. Program awareness amongst the general public is easily lost. Some of your previous community partnership connections may no longer be employed in their positions. Now is the time to make sure that you have a solid ERSEA strategy to rebuild that awareness and rekindle those connections. ERSEA is the lifeblood of any Head Start program, and this next year it will be increasingly important to make sure you’re doing what you can to serve as many children as possible per your funded enrollment.

For more information on ERSEA, visit our many posts about ERSEA on our blog. Or, to schedule an online ERSEA training for your agency, please contact us.

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