Inside and beyond: lessons from today’s classroom-Horizons For Homeless Children

Inside and beyond: lessons from today’s classroom

School is once again in session at Horizons. On July 6, Horizons reopened and moved forward with classroom learning. Staggered entry times, enhanced cleaning protocols, safety barriers and social distancing have created an environment that is safe for children and teachers to be together in the classroom. A return to school has meant 34 of our families were able to return to work.

Classroom tables are divided into four quadrants by plexiglass dividers. Teachers outlined the edges in color so children can easily distinguish where they begin and end.

Now, just over a month in, Horizons’ staff and families alike are rebuilding routines in the updated environment our team has worked diligently to create, with classrooms looking and functioning differently than they once did. Social distancing is observed, all staff members wear masks, lunch is served individually behind plexiglass dividers, and circle time is no longer on a circular rug in the corner but takes place across the entire classroom.

“Children are resilient, and we have seen that first-hand in their excitement to get back into the classroom. There was so much joy in being able to see their teachers and friends again, to be able to play with their favorite toys – even if they have to do so behind a divider or mask,” said Jayd Rodrigues, Horizons’ Center Director.

Despite the changes and challenges, Horizons’ teachers are back in the classroom helping students achieve milestones every day. They’re bringing a dynamic and safe curriculum that facilitates social and educational growth to children at a time where learning has paused for much of the country.

Some parents have, understandably, been hesitant to bring their children back to school. But the changes that have been made and the early success of other children returning to school are giving more parents confidence that their child will be safe. More children are expected to return come fall.

“While some teachers were apprehensive about returning to school, their anxiety dissipated as the new safety procedures gave them confidence that we could do this right,” shared Sheila O’Neil, Executive Director of the Early Education Centers.

Horizons teachers have picked up where they left off and are innovating to create an engaging and safe curriculum for students. Sensory tables, a staple in Horizons’ classrooms, are typically large tubs in the middle of the classroom filled with water or sand in which children can gather around and play. In compliance with social distancing guidelines, Horizons’ teachers have created individual sensory tables instead; allowing children to enjoy one of their favorite activities in a compliant and safe way. Teachers have also brought the classroom outside, taking more walks learning about plants in the summer season and bringing arts and crafts outdoors. Handwashing activities and lessons on

germs have also been incorporated, focusing on the importance of good hygiene now more than ever.

A child washes his hands in a classroom sink after a lesson about germs.

“We have found a way to add space, not trauma,” said Rodrigues. “To meet safety guidelines, we have fewer children in each classroom and our teachers have been able to focus on children one-on-one more than ever before. That level of individual attention has helped with the transition.” The team has had to be flexible as student attendance has varied day to day.

Horizons is keeping parents informed and families are reporting they feel safe with the care going into maintaining healthy environments. Operational changes like the addition of “runners” who help classes minimize unnecessary hallway interaction, handle meal delivery to classrooms and ensure that drop-offs and pickups are well orchestrated, have all helped minimize potential exposure.

As Horizons continues to take operations one day at a time, communication with both staff and families remains a top priority. Horizons is committed to transparency through this uncertain time, encouraging an open dialogue with families and staff.

“It was hard, but not in the way we thought it was going to be hard,” said Kate Barrand, Horizons’ CEO. “We anticipated that it would be traumatic for our children to return after such a long period. Add to it the new drop off procedures where they transition from parents to teachers on the sidewalk instead of in the classroom. But this was not the case; they transitioned easily. We worried about our teaching staff, but quickly found that the love of what they do with students could get them through this challenging time.”

We didn’t anticipate the stress on our teachers associated with following protocols day after day. Nor did we anticipate the full impact of the cost to maintain a safe environment on our operating budget.

However, even with all the changes, the teachers and staff at Horizons are committed to ensuring continued operations – our families rely on us. While nobody knows what the future may hold, Horizons’ restart points to a positive future.

This piece was written by Rachel San Giacomo, a regular contributor to Horizons’ blog.