Every year, Catholic Charities Head Start programs extend the school year by offering summer sessions to 4- and 5-year-olds. This year was no different, although the experience may have felt brand new to the preschool participants, who had spent much of the school year learning through computer screens.

The programs, which serve low-income families by promoting a child’s school readiness and the family’s self-sufficiency, took precautions during the summer sessions due to COVID-19 – limiting the number of students in a classroom, for example. But program leaders said the kids were excited to come to school in person, with days filled with letters, numbers, virtual field trips and the chance to play with their friends.

In Baltimore City…

In Baltimore City, Catholic Charities served around 130 children in 13 classrooms at nine Head Start sites this summer. That’s about half the number of children who would normally participate in summer learning, said Valeria Foster, supervisor of family services for Catholic Charities Head Start of Baltimore City – a change necessitated by COVID-19-related restrictions.

The Baltimore City program adopted a state-approved curriculum that focused learning around summer activities, such as theme parks or water play. Teachers also offered a variety of virtual field trips or experiences, including a puppet show and an online visit to the Maryland Science Center.

Because of COVID-19, most of the 2020-21 academic year for the city’s Head Start programs was virtual. In-person learning did not resume until spring. Teachers found creative approaches to reach the young kids – Foster described how a teacher talking about colors might ask children to find something red around their home and show it to their classmates – but many were ready for more.

“The children are very excited to return on site,” Foster said. “For some, they’re excited because this is the first learning experience.”

Five-year-olds about to start elementary school were among the groups Head Start prioritized when filling the summer slots, recognizing that some extra time in the classroom might help their transition in the fall. Foster said she is confident that the students are ready.

“Because we’re an early childhood program, we literally provide children an early start to learning. Our children are not really going to be behind when they start kindergarten because what we’re giving them is a head start,” she said.

Catholic Charities Head Start programs in Baltimore City are hosting open-enrollment days that allow eligible families with complete documentation to walk in and enroll a child without an appointment. The next open-enrollment days will be on Aug. 11 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 765 W. Hamburg Street, and on Aug. 13 from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. at 2848 W. Lafayette Avenue. Interested families can also contact the program at 667-600-3783, or through this form.

In Carroll County…

In Carroll County, Head Start offered five weeks of face-to-face education at two locations, with nine children at the Taneytown site and nine in Westminster. Four days a week, teachers focused on school readiness, including language, literacy, math, science and various motor skills. But the program also fit in summertime fun, organizing water games, outdoor activities at local parks and virtual field trips, such as one to the Maryland Zoo.

“Parents loved it, and attendance was really good,” said Patricia Foley, Catholic Charities’ director of Head Start and Early Head Start of Carroll County.

The summer program also helped resume an in-person routine for children, many of whom had participated in a school year of hybrid learning, which included a mix of in-person and virtual classroom experiences.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, the program responded to the new strains on families with virtual trainings on topics such as nutrition or the importance of a steady bedtime routine, and connections to other resources, including behavioral health services.

Foley said she and her peers were delighted to shift back to nearly full-time in person learning.

“For educators that deal with this particular age group, we know it’s very developmentally appropriate,” she said.

Foley said the Carroll County programs expect to return to full-capacity, face-to-face learning in the fall. To enroll, eligible families can call 667-600-2571 and ask for the ERSEA (Eligibility, Recruitment, Selection, Enrollment and Attendance) Coordinator, who will schedule an appointment, or visit this site.