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Illinois Head Start Programs Respond to COVID-19

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posted on 01.08.2021, 00:00 authored by H. Callie Silver
The coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic has impacted nearly every aspect of daily life, in ways that the world has never seen before. Health, economic, and psychological concerns have been at an all-time high, particularly for low-income populations. The long-standing, two-generation poverty reduction and early childhood program, Head Start/Early Head Start (HS/EHS), was forced to temporarily shut its center doors for several months in the Spring of 2020. Since its inception, the Head Start model has emphasized both family engagement and social-emotional learning as important mechanisms to promote child well-being and success. As the pandemic interrupted classroom-based and in-person activities, resourceful programs continued to support children and families in novel ways. This study aimed to capture this creativity and identify pathways by which programs maintained relationships with families and children’s social-emotional development throughout the pandemic. Illinois HS/EHS center directors were interviewed at two time points (August/September 2020 and November 2020) to capture their program’s practices before, during, and after shut downs. In partnership with the Illinois Head Start Association, participants (N=20) were recruited through purposeful sampling techniques to ensure representation of various center characteristics (e.g. geography, urbanity, ages served). Findings from this study contribute to an ongoing early childhood care and education conversation about what a post-pandemic world should look like to best meet the needs of children and families. Among these include the necessity for programs to utilize personalized communication strategies with families, support caregiver engagement at-home, expand conceptualizations of social emotional learning, and continue to provide wrap-around resources for families. This study also provides insight into any future center closures, whether they occur as a result of disease or other reason. Through a collaborative, strengths-based approach, this study seeks to directly inform practice and policy of Head Start programs in Illinois and nationwide, while guiding the rest of the early childhood care and education field, which for decades has looked to Head Start as an exemplar.



Zinsser, Katherine M


Zinsser, Katherine M



Degree Grantor

University of Illinois at Chicago

Degree Level


Degree name

PhD, Doctor of Philosophy

Committee Member

Shaw, Jessica L Roy, Amanda L Coba-Rodriguez, Sarai Tate, Cynthia

Submitted date

August 2021

Thesis type




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