“It was more importantly that it was out of necessity for them to get back to work.”
With the school year in full swing for Massachusetts K-through-12 students, many parents are seeking early-childhood education and care for their younger kids. Recent U.S. Census Bureau surveys show more than 2 million Americans took unpaid leave to care for a child in the last month.
Steve Huntley, executive director of Valley Opportunity Council in Holyoke, said their early learning and care programs, which are subsidized for eligible families, shut down for a few months at the start of the pandemic – but as soon as they reopened, the demand was there.
“It was in part because they felt safe with with us, etc.,” he said. “But it was more importantly that it was out of necessity for them to get back to work. We continue to see folks truly needing our centers in order to keep their employment, to keep their jobs.”
Valley Opportunity Council is among 23 community action agencies working to end poverty in the state. Huntley said they put high priority on high-quality programs so children in working-class families have the same educational opportunities as those in more affluent families.
Birgitta Damon, chief executive of Lynn Economic Opportunity, Inc., runs the Head Start and early Head Start programs in Lynn. She said these federal programs prepare kids for kindergarten by assessing their developmental, social and emotional, and academic needs. While theirs has long been a critical service for many families, the pandemic has led to more kids experiencing isolation and disruption from their usual routines.
“We also provide nutrition services, health services,” said Damon, who also is board president of the Massachusetts Association for Community Action (MASSCAP). “We do 11 assessments during the school year to ensure that children are on a path for school readiness, to enter kindergarten.”
Damon added that if a child shows signs of needing additional support, Head Start programs refer families to local agencies, pediatricians or the public school systems for Individualized Education Programs. Low-income families can find out if there are spots in local Head Start or child-care programs by contacting their local community action agency.