Heartland Head Start has welcomed some children back into classrooms for the first time since mid-March.
The Bloomington-based social service agency focuses on early childhood education and school preparedness for families in McLean and Livingston counties.
Executive Director Karen Bruning said after Tuesday’s “soft opening,” just 30 of the neediest families are sending children for in-person teaching and child care. That’s a fraction of what it would normally be.
“At any given time, we can typically serve 287 families. But there was no way we were going to be able to do that in a face-to face environment,” Bruning said. “We started a process in which we just really determined priorities and the family's needs and what staff were going to be available to work in a face-to-face versus a remote environment.”
Single-parent families, those who must work or attend school without another source of child care, and those with children in a special education plan were among those given priority. But services remain available to the other families virtually.
"I think that's what the ‘soft’ is in a sense," said Bruning. "We want it to be successful. We want the families to feel success and feel supported and feel safe leaving their children with us again for the first time since this all started. But also making sure that those receiving remote services are going to be successful...whether they need internet or laptops or iPads or those types of things.”
After a month, Bruning said, Heartland Head Start will reassess whether the agency can expand in-person services, or whether it needs to scale back. She said administrators were worried about reopening, given the recent spike in COVID-19 cases in McLean County, but for now, they feel confident they’ve taken every precaution to keep kids and staff safe.
“We did mandatory staff testing two weeks ago, and of our 85 staff, we only had one positive case,” Bruning said. “Fortunately, he had been off-site. He had been on vacation, but we asked him to come in and be tested, and hadn't really exposed anybody. We hadn't been open.”
Bruning said testing staff will continue, although how often hasn't been determined yet. There’s a litany of other precautions, including symptom screenings for staff and children, limiting classroom capacities to 10 or fewer, and requiring parents to leave students at the door.
Bruning noted Heartland Head Start is bound to the strictest regulations are at the time, whether those directives come from the McLean County Health Department, the State of Illinois, or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“That's one of the reasons we wanted to start small, because we didn't want to have to adjust in our first round,” she said.
Like all other child care agencies, Bruning said Heartlnd is doing the best it can with the information and guidance available, while still trying to make sure children’s needs are met.
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