On March 17th, ECMHSP transitioned from in-center services to farmworker families in Florida to remote educational and nutritional support. This transition has required a tremendous effort on behalf of the entire project. One leader, among many, who has played a key role in navigating these uncharted waters is Christine Alvarado, our Chief Innovation Officer. Please read our recent phone interview with her.
How did the senior management team at ECMHSP make the difficult decision to suspend our center-based services?
The decision to suspend operations for our children and families was incredibly difficult and was made by a team after much thought and consideration of the implications of a closure on children, families and staff. We knew that closing was going to be a serious hardship for families, but we also know that our very first priority is the health and safety of all of our stakeholders, from children, to staff, to families, to the communities where we operate. Even though our centers do an outstanding job cleaning, sanitizing and disinfecting, as demonstrated by our low rates of contagious illness, the health crisis caused by COVID – 19 is something never before seen, and we did not want to put any one at risk by remaining open. It was decided to close our centers, and find ways to support children, families and staff remotely. Our Policy Council and Board of Directors were informed during the decision-making process, and fully supported the decision.
Here, Fort Pierce Center Cook, Maria Zamora, prepares a meal package.
What is ECMHSP doing to ensure timely and effective communication with parents and staff?
Immediately after the decision was made to close our centers in Florida, plans were developed to support families with their urgent needs and continue to deliver Head Start services remotely to the extent possible. Nutritional support was prioritized, because we knew families are still working and would not be able to get to grocery stores while needed items are still in stock (milk, eggs, diapers, toilet paper) and they can’t get to food banks or food distribution sites during their operating hours. Education services have been provided to minimize loss of developmental gains acquired during the year. Health, disabilities, and emergency family services followed.
To maintain open communication with parents, education staff are contacting families weekly to discuss individual children’s progress and to assign activities based on children’s development. Health and family services staff are also contacting families weekly and communicate biweekly during food package pick up or drop off.
Because most of our families do not speak English as their first language, there is a great emphasis on tailoring communication to meet their language and literacy unique needs. This means reaching out to families by phone at times that are convenient to them, usually evenings. We have been sending home simple, colorful, and accurate print information along with food packages. It is important to reach out to families using a variety of mediums that are appropriate for them and to reinforce accurate and timely messaging. Since most families have access to smart phones, information is regularly posted on our Facebook and ECMHSP website in appropriate languages, including Spanish and Haitian Creole. Plans for getting audio information to our Mixteco-speaking families are also underway. We also created a YouTube channel specifically for ECMHSP messages targeted to children and parents, including individual videos for each preschool classroom.
One of the pictures sent to us from a Head Start parent in Florida.
What are the biggest challenges for ECMHSP during this health emergency?
There have been challenges identifying accurate, language appropriate information to distribute to families and staff, particularly for Haitian Creole speakers. There is now information available, but it is still limited. Planning for food distribution while keeping staff and families safe has also been a challenge, especially since some commodities and disinfecting supplies are in short supply. Ramping up technology and making sure staff that typically don’t have ECMHSP assigned devices have access to tools to communicate with families remotely have been challenging, but successful. And of course, it has been challenging for children, families, and staff to be away from their routines. Feedback from parents during the last few weeks have shown us why the teacher-child interaction and relationship is so important.
ECMHSP staff in Semmes, Alabama preparing meal packages for our families.
What measures are being taken to keep our employees safe?
Health and safety are our top priority! Even before our Head Start centers closed, locations in high risk areas ramped up their cleaning from sanitizing levels to disinfecting levels, a higher level of cleaning. All ECMHSP travel was also stopped. Administrative office staff are all working from home and must notify a supervisor when they go into an office to minimize exposure. Some Florida staff still need to be in centers during closures to prepare food and information distributions. Staff are encouraged to work as much as possible from home, but when they need to come in, strict health protocols are in place including staggering staff, working in separate rooms when possible or six feet apart, wearing gloves and masks, sanitizing work areas and deliveries, and arranging for food pick ups and deliveries that minimize contact with others. Supervisors are regularly checking in with staff to make sure everyone is doing well.
Our parents are working hard to keep their children engaged in their educational activities.
How do you foresee this pandemic changing our operations for the long term?
While this crisis has been challenging, we are also learning many lessons that will improve the way we work and deliver services in the future. Most importantly, we have been forced to rely on technology for remote communication and service delivery. This has given us an opportunity to fully utilize the tools that we already had available to us, and to fully integrate technology into all our systems, especially for communication between staff and families and between staff. We quickly realized what we needed and what was essential in terms of hardware and software, and realized where the gaps were, and are working on filling those gaps. We also realized just how tech savvy many of our families are. Technology has been important for staying in touch and supporting them. This health crisis has allowed us to closely examine services and systems to identify what really matters to achieving our goals. Thanks to effective technology, communication has improved within the agency as well.
How can the community help our migrant and seasonal farmworker families currently facing financial hardship?
While farmworkers are essential to the food supply chain in the United States, they ironically often face food shortages themselves. As crop and commodity production fluctuates and decreases due to less demand from large buyers such as restaurants, many farmworkers are facing reduced hours or unemployment. Some are working reduced hours due to social distancing requirements put into place by growers and producers. Living and working conditions for families cause and increased risk of becoming infected with COVID-19. Families often live in close quarters with other families out of economic necessity, and many employers don’t have enough PPEs for workers, many of whom are still being transported in crowded buses.
Lastly, there’s uncertainty about stay at home orders and crop production on the east coast, as a result, families don’t know if they will be able to travel for work upstream in the next few weeks. To make matters worse, farmworker families in most all cases are ineligible for unemployment insurance and other financial support systems currently being provided by the United States.
We are grateful for the support we have received from the Manatee County Migrant Education and Manatee County School District, Justice for Migrant Women, Hispanics in Philanthropy, the Guadalupe Center, and Feeding the Gulf Coast of Alabama. Farmworker families are living with a huge amount of uncertainty and need our community’s support more than ever. If your organization can provide our farmworker families assistance in any of our service areas, please reach out to John Menditto, ECMHSP General Counsel and Director of Risk Management, at email@example.com. You can also make a tax-deductible donation through our Mightycause fundraising platform by clicking HERE. These funds will go to our farmworker families who have been hit the hardest. We thank you in advance for your generosity.