Safe, Innovative, and Timely: Leadership During Difficult Times

The Neighborhood House Association (NHA) has provided the Head Start community with safe, innovative, and timely solutions during and after the COVID-19 pandemic. The NHA team continued to offer their services and adapted to the public health crisis by testing and implementing flexible learning tools and approaches, in addition to nutritious meals for children and families in need.

We sat with the Vice President of Early Childhood Development at NHA Dr. Deidre D. Jones–an accomplished educator, well versed scholar, and inspiring leader. Dr. Jones shared her experience working with NHA, making urgent, innovative solutions to provide education services to children while protecting their safety, during difficult times.

NHSA: How long have you been working with the Neighborhood House Association?

Dr. Jones: Three years with NHA! When I came on board, I came to a well-oiled machine, it was a breath of fresh air. In NHA, they know what to do and they’re being innovative. I was trying to find my place at the agency, even though I came in as vice president of early childhood development. As a team, we’re always looking for the next innovative thing we can do. What can we do to go farther and grow larger?

NHSA: How did you manage the COVID-19 crisis? What was that experience of dealing with a pandemic like?

Dr. Jones: The pandemic hit after I had been with the agency for five months. It was a huge change for everyone, but especially for me because I was new to the agency. But we pivoted. I had a very strong team that rallied together. We discussed what we could do and got to work.

NHSA: How do you maintain a sane, stress-free work environment?

Dr. Jones: We take a very coordinated approach to dealing with crises. Whatever we implement, we make sure we can do it without overwhelming our teaching staff. Sometimes I’m very excited to share ideas, but also I listen to my staff when they tell me: “That’s a great idea, but we’re already working on this and we need to consider that, etc.” Some projects and ideas need to wait simply because I don’t like to stress out my team. I established that relationship with them where they’re comfortable to say yes or no and actually provide their input.

NHSA: We heard about your amazing work through your partnership with Innovative Health Solutions. How did that collaboration start?

Dr. Jones: We purchased Innovative Health Solutions’ ZONO and HALO machines! IHS was first put on my radar by a teacher right on the onset of COVID-19. Now, 29 out of our 31 sites have ZONO machines. The staff there loves it. You can literally just put everything into the machine, press the button, and walk away. Thirty minutes later, everything is cleaned and sanitized. We have the HALOs at our administrative offices. They are another layer of protection for our staff so they feel safe at work.

Following NHA’s Lead: Safety, Innovation, and Timeliness

Here are four keys to success that we can borrow from NHA: maintaining the safety of children and staff, forming long-lasting partnerships, adopting innovative solutions, and addressing the workforce’s mental wellness.

1. Safety First, Education Always

The NHA followed local and federal health guidelines throughout and after the pandemic. Initially, they relied on distant learning methods and provided children and their families technological assistance, including tablets, laptops, and wifi access, to take online classes from the safety of their homes. It was also an opportunity for the parents and families to follow-up with teachers on their children’s progress and success, online.

While most schools were closed, the NHA continued to provide nutritious meals several times a week–the frequency depended on the evolving health guidelines and ranged from daily to twice a week–as well as diapers for the younger children. When collective activities were still considered hazardous, the NHA strategically selected their give-away locations to cover several sites at once, usually where there was the most traffic.

During the progressive return to classrooms, the NHA tested a pilot site before slowly opening several more sites at a time, while prioritizing sanitization and safety measures. The preschool classrooms applied a lower enrollment capacity than pre-COVID, as well as smaller groups of students to keep the six-foot distance. In addition to implementing health guidelines, the NHA held weekly telebriefing sessions with child-care providers and healthcare professionals to present the latest updates and adjust measures accordingly.

2. Partnerships Bring New Ideas!

“Building and maintaining partnerships help with the progression of ideas. I don’t have to do all the work on my own, my team doesn’t have to do all the work on their own,” says Dr. Jones. “It really helps to put us on the forefront of innovative change, or to be an example or a guide for another program.”

Some programs reach out to exchange ideas and inspire new ones. For example, the NHA installed sanitization and ventilation systems in the classrooms and offices to protect both children and staff. Through such partnerships, the barriers and hurdles caused by the pandemic become less daunting and more manageable.

3. Adjust, Create, and Innovate

When implementing flexible learning tools, the NHA installed different learning applications on tablets before giving them to parents and families. To make up for the learning loss during the pandemic, they launched the ‘Ignite by Hatch’ online program with differentiating instruction. This means that as children had different progress levels, the program adjusted the content based on the child’s developmental level and needs.

Another innovative resource was a website explaining different developmental milestones, based on the child’s age. To keep up with health guidelines, the NHA piloted, tested and applied different approaches and measures to safe learning in the classroom.

These innovative methods included: teaching two groups of students separately on different days of the week, following a hybrid group schedule where one group attended the classroom in the first half of the week and the other group in the second half, and changing the frequency of deep cleaning sites.

4. Mental Wellness Matters

Thanks to NHA’s deeply-rooted commitment to wellness, being aware and mindful of the staff’s mental health and stressors is a best practice.

“I don’t like stress,” says Dr. Jones. “We take a very coordinated approach to dealing with crises. Whatever we implement, we make sure we can do it without overwhelming our teaching staff. Some projects and ideas can wait, but they’re still on our radar. I don’t like to stress out my team. I don’t want to do anything that my team doesn’t support.”

Given current child-care challenges such as workforce shortage, exchanging input with the staff about mental health helps to understand and address their needs better and sooner. In addition to constructive feedback, Dr. Jones encourages her team to share opinions and perspectives on all work aspects.

“I usually wait before I provide my input because I don’t want them to just get along with whatever the supervisor says. I save my opinion for last so that they aren’t influenced by it.”

Farah Samti

Farah is NHSA's manager of communications.

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