Chelsea Dunning, 5, goes down a slide Thursday while sisters Ella Dunning, 3, and Briana Dunning, 7, play on the swings in Everett. Both Chelsea and Brianna finished the online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Chelsea Dunning, 5, goes down a slide Thursday while sisters Ella Dunning, 3, and Briana Dunning, 7, play on the swings in Everett. Both Chelsea and Brianna finished the online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Local families praise state’s online early education program

The Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program found creative ways to reach kids during COVID.

EVERETT — The COVID-19 pandemic turned kitchens, coffee tables and couches into classrooms for students across Snohomish County this March.

Schools weren’t alone in having to educate and assist from afar.

Normally supporting 1,500 local families with in-person preschool and support services, the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program (ECEAP) was forced to the virtual realm to teach 3- and 4-year-old children and deliver much-needed aid to their families.

On a dime, staff at ECEAP’s 17 local subcontractors made the switch. According to Beth Mizell, the director of ECEAP for Snohomish County Human Services, they prioritized ensuring families’ basic needs like housing, food and healthcare were met during the pandemic. Staff stayed in contact with nearly 1,350 families, providing preschool activities and resources.

Mizell said the crisis has validated one of ECEAP’s founding principles, that parents are the first and most important teachers for their children.

“It really became critical that we supported families to take on that role full time and to help them be able to engage in activities that were just a part of their normal day, that were opportunities for learning for their children,” she said.

Ella Dunning, 3, is pushed on a swing Thursday by her dad, David Dunning, in Everett. Ella will start the online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program in a few weeks. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Ella Dunning, 3, is pushed on a swing Thursday by her dad, David Dunning, in Everett. Ella will start the online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program in a few weeks. (Olivia Vanni / The Herald)

Nearly 250 staff members across the county organized online class meetings, activity packets, YouTube videos and more — with plenty of feedback from parents — then tailored services to meet the needs of each family. The most effective activities, Mizell said, have been interactive and easy extensions of the classroom.

“People really challenged themselves to think about their work differently and really broadened the scope of what they were willing to do to make sure they were able to meet the needs of families and their children,” Mizell said.

Typically, when the school year ends in June, ECEAP ends. However, with funding through Gov. Jay Inslee’s office, Mizell said ECEAP has provided additional support services to about 650 families into the summer.

For Jessica Dunning and her husband David, ECEAP provided some normalcy for their children.

“The pandemic threw everything up in the air and it felt really scary,” Jessica said. “Having the foundation of this really great support staff at ECEAP was helpful.”

During remote learning sessions through Zoom for Chelsea, now 5, her sisters Briana, 7, and Ella, 3, frequently joined in the half-hour of dancing and songs. Now in first grade, Briana learned to read through ECEAP. Chelsea received speech therapy and made huge gains in just a few months. Ella will start the program next month. The family’s youngest, Richard, was born in May.

ECEAP isn’t just for the kids. Staff helped connect David to career and health resources. Jessica said it was what the family needed to become self-sufficient.

“They gave us programs that helped us get back on our feet,” she said. “They are just an amazing resource for the community and they care about the whole family and not just the student, and that is an amazing thing to know as a parent.”

The online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programhas helped Torry Hollimon keep his three children, Trace, 5, Torry-Tayana, 5, and Tristen, 3, engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Torry Hollimon)

The online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programhas helped Torry Hollimon keep his three children, Trace, 5, Torry-Tayana, 5, and Tristen, 3, engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Torry Hollimon)

Snohomish single father Torry Hollimon said he wears pompoms for ECEAP. All three of his kids are in the program. Hollimon said learning has become a family thing.

“I came to understand how important early childhood development was for our children,” he said. “For me that has been tremendous, because that allows me to understand what my children are needing, how I can be there for them and what sort of environment I can provide for them.”

Thanks to ECEAP, Hollimon said his children love school and are yearning to go back. The family has developed a network of friends and people they can depend on in ECEAP, and the kids have connected with them whenever possible during the pandemic.

Hollimon said there were challenges with the distance learning, like his kids’ inexperience with a computer or the havoc of preschoolers on a video call together, but ECEAP was quick to find solutions where possible.

The online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programhas helped Torry Hollimon keep his three children, Trace, 5, Torry-Tayana, 5, and Tristen, 3, engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Torry Hollimon)

The online Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programhas helped Torry Hollimon keep his three children, Trace, 5, Torry-Tayana, 5, and Tristen, 3, engaged during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Torry Hollimon)

“I just commend them for stepping up and stepping in,” Hollimon said.

The process was far from stress-free for staff, but Mizell said there were silver linings. Formerly a paper-heavy process, applications to enroll in ECEAP are now online. Future staff trainings will be conducted remotely to expand staff development.

Mizell said with distance learning, it’s critical to engage with families early and often.

Snohomish County ECEAP will admit 1,485 children into the program this fall. Interested families are encouraged to call 425-388-7010 or email ECEAP@snoco.org.

Ian Davis-Leonard: 425-339-3448; idavisleonard@heraldnet.com; Twitter: @IanDavisLeonard.

Ian Davis-Leonard reports on working class issues through Report for America, a national service program that places emerging journalists into local newsrooms to report on under-covered issues. To support Ian’s work at The Daily Herald with a tax-deductible donation, go to www.heraldnet.com/support.

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