Hawaii’s largest provider of a federally funded preschool program for low-income families has resumed all-virtual instruction after just a few weeks back in class as the Covid-19 surge hit some neighborhoods with Head Start programs particularly hard.

The decision by the Honolulu Community Action Program to cease in-person learning on Sept. 1 for all of its 76 Head Start classrooms, which have the capacity to serve 1,500 children on Oahu, stands in contrast to the one-off school closures and temporary quarantines across the Hawaii Department of Education.

Grant Kogami, director of the Head Start program, said the high coronavirus case counts, which have been driven by the aggressive delta variant, left administrators little choice.

“We saw it grow exponentially,” Kogami said. “Overall, we just needed to do something to protect our children, staff and community.”

Makaha Elementary School with Waianae Mountains in the background.
Makaha Elementary in Waianae hosts one of the 76 Head Start preschool classrooms operated by Honolulu Community Action Program. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

There is no set timetable for when HCAP’s Head Start classrooms might resume in-person services, but Kogami said the agency is “closely monitoring” the Covid-19 situation and will decide accordingly.

“I do anticipate if things improve, we would be reopening in the near future,” he said.

Hawaii reported 431 new cases on Monday, with a seven-day average of nearly 485 per day, a decrease from numbers that soared above 1,000 earlier this month. The number of Covid-19 patients in the hospital also dropped to 302, but many were in the ICU or on ventilators. The death toll remained at 714 after days of double-digit increases.

Smooth Transition

Most Head Start classrooms provided virtual instruction throughout the 2020-21 school year so the transition wasn’t too difficult, according to Kogami.

Still, teacher Roxanne Bell will miss the live sounds from the 14 kids laughing, playing and interacting in her classroom when the school year started in early August.

“Oh my goodness, it was very emotional,” said Bell, a Head Start teacher at the Waianae-based Kamehameha Schools Community Learning Center in Maili. “I felt like a teacher again. It was fun to hear them laugh, cry, scream, kick, it was just fun. Our team missed it, we missed the kids.”

Some of the kids who weren’t speaking when they started school were able to start formulating sentences in the short time they were at school, she added.

“We just needed to do something to protect our children, staff and community.” — Grant Kogami of the Honolulu Community Action Program

Under HCAP’s new policy, she meets for an hour each week with each of her students via Zoom, conducting activities such as a welcome song and dance, math and literacy lessons, interactive games and a parent wellness check. The kids’ enthusiasm has not dampened.

“They see us (staff) as they enter the Zoom. They’re shy, they’re twirling, hiding, jumping up and down, with such a joy,” she said.

Despite the loss of in-person social interaction, Bell said she thinks HCAP made the right call due to safety concerns. The Covid-19 vaccine is only available to those 12 and older.

“I was relieved,” Bell said of the shift. “To think the kids could contract the virus from our Head Start classroom, that was not OK with me. I know it may have been hard for (some families), but when you think about these babies, they’re just 3, 4, 5 years old.”

Pfizer said Monday it may apply for emergency use authorization to use the vaccine it jointly developed with Germany’s BioNTech in kids aged 5 to 11 by the end of the month, although vaccine trial results for children under 5 may not happen until the end of the year.

Classroom Cases

Concerns rose last month as Covid-19 spread rapidly in Waianae, Ewa, North Shore and the Windward side, correlating with a high number of unvaccinated people in those communities, according to Kogami. Many of the cases were “directly involving our Head Start students and families in their lives outside of the classroom,” the agency said on its website.

It was a stark turn from June and July, when the agency operated 44 in-person classrooms on Oahu in a special summer session for about 500 young learners and experienced zero Covid-19 cases in the classroom setting.

The situation changed in August as in-person learning started in all of HCAP’s classrooms. In the first three weeks of the month, HCAP had two staff members and 12 children in its Head Start classrooms test positive for Covid-19. Seventy other cases were considered close contacts of positive cases, which largely originated outside of the classroom, Kogami said.

When the agency made the call to go back to virtual instruction, reaction among families was “very positive,” he added. “They understand, they’re very thankful for the decision that was made. There are a handful who have expressed concern.”

Head Start, and Early Head Start for infants and toddlers, are federally funded child development programs for families who meet federal poverty guidelines. For a family of four, annual income eligibility is capped at $30,480.

Unlike standard preschool, Head Start offers other support services like meals, medical and dental care, including vision and hearing screenings and family engagement programs.

“We consider ourselves a comprehensive child development services model. Because our demographics are very low-income, and vulnerable, it’s a comprehensive services model, the whole child, whole family, multigenerational,” said Christine Jackson, director of the Hawaii Head Start Collaboration Office.

This is an example of what Head Start preschool classrooms looked like before the pandemic forced them to go online. Suevon Lee/Civil Beat/2017

Nearly a quarter of children enrolled in HCAP Head Start programs are English-language learners while close to half are Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander by race, based on a 2017-18 data snapshot.

Enrollment Down

Demand for Head Start spaces is typically high, but some of the largest Head Start providers in Hawaii have said enrollment dropped off this year, partly due to fears of sending children who aren’t yet eligible to be vaccinated back into educational settings. The need for child care also has diminished because more parents are staying home.

At the start of the school year, HCAP’s Head Start program was at 70% capacity, compared with 90% in an average year, said Kogami. HCAP has made vaccinations mandatory among its employees so 95% of the staff is inoculated while the rest received a religious or medical exemption.

Parents and Children Together, another nonprofit operator of 24 Head Start classrooms in Honolulu and Hawaii island, said its classrooms are usually nearly full but enrollment has dropped to about 60% this year. That organization has continued providing in-person services.

Each Head Start agency operates independently and has authority to make decisions about classroom closures.

“Whether it’s Covid exposure or staffing, everything is in flux right now,” said Ben Naki, the director of the Head Start and Early Head Start programs at PACT and president of the Head Start Association of Hawaii. “It’s managing it day by day, trying to be prepared as possible. Overall, we want to do what’s best for the community, and we know that keeping ourselves involved in the community is important for families.”

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