The Maritime Odyssey Preschool: Providing Early Childhood Education During the COVID-19 Pandemic

An Interview with Monisha Gibson

The Maritime Odyssey Preschool is a child care center in Norwalk, Connecticut, that serves about 200 low-income children aged 14 months to 5 years old. Odyssey was founded in 2016 when Odyssey Learning, Inc., a Norwalk preschool, partnered with The Maritime Aquarium and Norwalk’s Grace Baptist Church to create an early childhood education program focused on STEAM — science, technology, engineering, arts, and math.  

The COVID-19 outbreak precipitated rapid shifts in how early childhood programs operate, affecting a vital resource for low-income and under-resourced communities. Schools nationwide continue to devise methods to maintain services for families in these communities during the pandemic.  At Odyssey, Director and CEO Monisha Gibson and her colleagues have come up with some innovative responses to conditions created by the pandemic. MDRC’s Amena Sengal spoke with her about how the program continues to work with its vulnerable population of students and families.

How has COVID-19 affected your program? What accommodations have you made because of these changes? 

This program provides wraparound care as well as a holistic community approach: prenatal supports to families, food to families, connection to mental health employees, and other supports, in addition to quality preschool programming. The center was closed due to COVID-19, and all of these services had to be transferred to an online/virtual platform. With help from local funders, Odyssey’s educational programming for preschool children has moved to 90-minute Zoom classrooms every day. Every family received a tablet and hotspot to access the internet, and the center has even continued its music and arts —  the A in STEAM — programs by continuing to host their drumming and music class. To allow this class to continue, children all got access to instruments so that they can practice at home.

Previously, families would send breakfast and lunch with the children for school. Now, because many families have lost their jobs or part of their incomes, we were able to find sponsors to support weekly food pickups. Families can also get help with their learning technology and have quick chats with teachers or me if there are any other family needs. Through these in-person interactions, we have been able to address other family needs, whether that meant helping them with food insecurity, additional educational support for their children, or technological support with the tablets and hotspots.  

What special services does Odyssey provide to children and families during the pandemic?

We’re holding more office hours. Typically, when parents drop off their children at school, they can ask teachers questions. But now that that opportunity is gone, we are offering office hours for the parents who need a little more interaction with the teachers. We provided backpacks to families, and materials for the children to work on while at home. The bags are passed out during the Friday food pick-up.  

We established a virtual platform to keep everyone informed. We adopted ClassTag, which allows us to text, email, and chat with parents. The platform provides translations, as many of our families speak other languages — that’s huge!  

Odyssey is also continuing its parent training work. Maritime has another arm of programming, which is training our parents to become preschool teachers. These parents can then either continue to work at Maritime or find employment elsewhere as preschool teachers. We pay the parent teachers to go through this training through grant dollars. During COVID-19 we have continued our parent training program. Our modified training program trains parents in skills to tutor some children who may be struggling in class. This has been great because that means we are still able to pay these parents for their time tutoring. In these sessions, the training teacher sets up a time with the family and children to do 15 minutes of one-on-one tutoring. The child’s parent is also asked to be on the video, to help reinforce the lessons.  

We also provide virtual professional development, which has helped our teachers. They have taken it upon themselves to train each other how to use the Zoom online platform, as well as come up with creative ways to tackle issues they run into with the virtual learning. We think we will likely keep this model, because it allows the teachers to get their professional development without having to figure out coverage or our staffing structure.  

We have been able to put our social worker on a virtual platform as well. This has been huge, since before, we only had her a few days in a month, and now she is able to address family needs virtually on an ongoing and more flexible basis.  

What are some obstacles that you’ve faced during the pandemic? How have you overcome them?

Communication and maintaining our tight-knit staff community has been hard during COVID-19. To address this, we established a weekly three-hour senior management Zoom meeting to allow our leadership team to find solutions to some of the issues raised by our staff members. Through this, we have been able to stay on the same page throughout the changes and challenges, and it has made our team stronger.  

As we adjusted to virtual learning, we really had to lean into our staff’s talents and leverage them for immediate problem-solving as well. They created clear processes for fellow teachers to follow with the curriculum implementation and devised creative ways to use Zoom. This also empowered the teachers to be their own experts; they started to lead training and professional development for one another, based on things they were interested in learning and felt that they were good at. It’s been really great to see them take ownership of their work in this way.  

What changes have you adopted that you are likely to carry forward?

For the foreseeable future, we are continuing online learning so that families who still do not feel comfortable bringing their children into the classroom are still able to get them an education. We are also offering this online learning to other children in the community who may not able to afford the full school tuition or are currently on our waiting list. This means more children than before will have access to quality preschool education. And we are going to continue to use the ClassTag, which has been of paramount importance in helping us communicate with parents. We will keep this platform even as we go back to full enrollment and full classrooms.  

Through grant dollars and donations, we hope to continue providing all families with tablets as part of the program. This way, children who are unable to attend school for any reason will be able to join their classmates.  

We are also going to continue our family chats. These chats on Zoom have been helpful in connecting families to resources in the community and providing a space for our families to share grievances or ask questions. We had originally only allowed it for families that were part of Odyssey, but we created another group that includes other members of the community, building a larger network of people who can help one another.  

How have you helped your teachers balance their own home lives with teaching remotely?

First, we understand that working under these conditions [COVID-19] means that things will not be perfect — and that is okay. We also understand that it is hard to balance work and home life if you are always at home. That is why we have four teachers (in two classrooms) on each Zoom session, so that teachers can jump off the screen if they need to address something at home. We recognized that our teachers needed some time to get their own lives together before going back to teaching remotely, so we shut down for a week to give them that time. We allow the teachers to schedule their own day with regard to planning time and professional development because we wanted to make sure this would work for their schedule. Lastly, we are lucky to be able to pay our teachers whether they are working or not. When teachers feel cared for and know that they are valued, they show up for the children and school.  

As we start coming out of lockdown and early childhood centers start to open their doors, what are some of the biggest challenges teachers face? What support will be most crucial, and why?

Having clearly defined systems and protocols about how to reopen the school will be the first and most important challenge we need to address. We plan to have online training for families to understand how to do drop-offs and pick-ups, as well as training and clear protocols for teachers. We are also exploring how to maintain the school’s culture and climate when you cannot hold student assemblies. We also secured funding to make sure we have a nurse to help our staff and make families feel safe and ensure that people are not sick.

Amena Sengal is an Operations Associate in MDRC’s Family Well-Being and Children’s Development policy area.