Except for five days in March, Operation Breakthrough has been open throughout the pandemic. The center, located at 31st and Troost, continues to provide 11 hours of care and education each weekday to hundreds of Kansas City children from low-income families, thanks to the efforts of many to limit exposure.
Parents have stayed out of the building for six months, standing in the heat or the rain to hand their children over at the door and pick them back up at day’s end. Teachers have curtailed travel and outside activities, in order to show up healthy at OB and surround themselves with children. The students do their part by wearing masks and bumping elbows instead of hugging—usually.
“We feel fortunate to be able to stay open for our families,” says Mary Esselman, CEO. “Everyone has done their share, from the preschoolers washing their hands really well, to the parents who didn’t get to come in with their children on the first day of school, to the Health Department and Children’s Mercy who have advised us every step of the way.”
A few teachers and students have tested positive for COVID-19, but because of our social-distancing policies, which include keeping students in groups of no more than 10 and not allowing groups to mix, we have not had to close the center, only the classroom of the affected teacher or student.
During the KCMO shutdown we were only allowed to care for the children of essential workers, per Health Department guidelines. Everyone else had to stay home.
“There were key functions that we just had to figure out how to continue,” Mary says. “Our pantry gave out food and diapers to our families every afternoon, delivering to those who couldn’t get here.”
Staff quickly assessed which families had computers and internet and worked to get everyone connected. Therapists and social workers stayed in touch with parents by phone and kept support groups running on Zoom.
“We couldn’t let the coronavirus stop our children’s education,’’ says instructional coach Roberto Diaz.
Teachers created web pages for each classroom, posting videos and activity ideas to help parents keep children on track at home. They also delivered learning kits, with supplies for hands-on activities. They called families, urging them to tune in for online yoga and music therapy, for meetings of their children’s classes on Zoom, even video chats where their children could work one-on-one with a teacher on important concepts, such as rhyming and letter recognition. As the weather warmed, teachers added home visits, where they set up a table in students’ yards and spend 30 minutes a week playing learning games to reinforce skills children need to be ready for school.
“When the pandemic started, I was worried that my son would not retain what he had learned,” says Cher’Reese, the parent of a 5-year-old. “When OB said they would come to our house, I couldn’t believe it. This program set my mind at ease.”
By Sept. 1, we had more than 400 children back here daily, with 250 children still learning from home. Some are at home because they or someone they live with is in the high-risk group for COVID-19. Others are waiting for OB to be able to enlarge class sizes back to 17 from the current limit of 10.
When school started, 218 students in kindergarten through ninth grade attended virtually from Operation Breakthrough, so their parents could go to work. Here, students get breakfast, lunch, recess and gym class. OB staff help them get on their school’s online platforms—and stay on them! They’re at the ready when students have questions, and for children in K-2 classrooms, they augment virtual school with a lot of hands-on learning.
Together, Operation Breakthrough’s staff, parents and children have adapted as the “new normal” has changed.
“This is what our families do,” says social work coordinator Jessica Kibby. “In a way it’s nothing new. They are always in survival mode.”
There are many ways the public can help. Our families live on average monthly income of less than $1,000, so donations of food, diapers, detergent and toiletries are key. School and art supplies, such as construction paper, Play-doh, dry-erase markers, glue and pencils, help keep our classrooms stocked and enable us to continue delivering learning kits to homebound students. Financial contributions through the Combined Federal Campaign will help us cover the many unexpected expenses associated with COVID-19, including hiring the extra staff needed to provide full-day services to schoolchildren.