Preparation and Collaboration Serve Families in Crisis

Maria McNair is the deputy director for Duval Head Start and Early Head Start in Jacksonville, Florida, where she manages the day-to-day operations of the program, serving 1,400 children and their families. In March 2020, no one fully understood the toll COVID-19 would eventually take, but Maria and her team were perhaps as prepared as possible. Being located in Florida where hurricanes are common, they are no strangers to emergency preparedness and disaster recovery.

First, Maria took stock of what issues they would face in transitioning to remote operations. She quickly came to understand that they lacked the technology to support staff through remote work and to adequately transition to a distance learning model for children. Her problem-solving approach is always to look at what can happen immediately to address the issue, and then think about how to address the long-term.

She met with the core leadership team to brainstorm solutions, which led them to use ReadyRosie, a research-based parenting curriculum and family engagement tool they had launched earlier in the year. This became the main platform to share and document daily lesson plans with families. Not starting from scratch in learning a new tool went a long way in helping families and staff adjust to virtual programming.

In her own words:

“I do not see risks as a bad thing and I remain calm under pressure. If my team sees me calm, they, in turn, remain calm while we deal with the challenges that come our way. I have spent a lot of time on continuous process improvement. I am driven by our program’s results. If I don’t see the results we are looking for, I start a conversation with the team to find out why and what we can do differently. I believe the key to responding to COVID-19 is to not look at it as an isolated emergency.

Although words cannot describe its devastating impact, we cannot forget that this health crisis is an emergency like other emergencies we may face in the future, including natural disasters that quite frequently affect our region. My approach is to look for and implement strategies and solutions that help us with COVID, but also prepare our program for future emergencies.”

Under normal circumstances, Maria would describe herself as more of a behind-the-scenes leader, but 2020 was far from normal, and she embraced the role of stepping into the forefront and increasing her visibility to provide a level of guidance and calm support for her staff. Maria led training sessions and was in constant communication with staff and families. She also deepened Duval Head Start/Early Head Start’s engagement with the local disaster preparedness and recovery coordination committee, an ongoing relationship that proves critical in times of crisis.

Malkia Payton-Jackson

Malkia Payton-Jackson is NHSA’s first-ever director of alumni engagement. Back in Cambridge, Head Start is where she made her first best friend — and now, she’s inviting Head Start alumni to connect with one another, share their unique stories, and help keep Head Start strong for generations to come.

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