Pocatello resident Armando Orozco leads a busy life as a husband, father of seven children and bread-winner, supporting his family through his job as a grocery clerk at Fred Meyer.

He stocks shelves as part of his job, so he often works swing shifts and late hours. But Orozco sleeps well, knowing that Pocatello Chubbuck Head Start support services are there during the COVID-19 pandemic to support his family.

It starts in the morning, when a Head Start bus driver drops off breakfast and lunch for his children, and then his 3- and 4-year-old boys open the computer and sign onto Google Classroom, where the Pocatello Chubbuck Head Start pre-school teachers take roll and begin the lessons for the day.

Even at home, away from the other students, the dancing videos and counting videos are super fun for the kids to enjoy, Orozco says. “With those dancing videos, we just had a spontaneous dance party at our house, with all the kids singing and dancing, that was a lot of fun,” he says. “Head Start preschool has a lot of great learning resources for kids to get ready for kindergarten.”

Idaho Head Start programs serve as an important safety net for low-income Idaho families by providing free pre-kindergarten educational programs to boost school readiness for kids 3 to 5 years old, birth-to-3 education in Early Head Start programs, Children’s Health Programs and Parent Advancement programs.

The Pocatello Chubbuck Head Start program serves 215 kids and families locally, and Bear River Head Start serves 144 kids and families in Caribou, Oneida, Franklin, Bear Lake and southern Bannock County in the Southeast Idaho region.

Statewide, Idaho Health Start programs serve about 4,945 children up to 5 years old in 146 communities and 39 Idaho counties, including 26,796 home visits last year.

“Idaho Head Start and Early Head Start have always served a vital function for low-income families and children in our state, but during this challenging time with the COVID-19 virus, it’s even more crucial that we’re there to support our families and ensure they’re doing OK and their children continue to learn and grow,” said Bill Foxcroft, executive director of Idaho Head Start Association.

The Orozco family receives family support services in addition to preschool education from the Pocatello Chubbuck Head Start program. During Gov. Little’s stay-at-home order, Head Start officials check in regularly online and on the phone. “The family advocates are constantly emailing us and calling us to see if everything is going OK,” he says.

At the Lincoln Early Childhood Center in Pocatello, Rebecca Sims, also known as “Miss Becky,” has been operating her preschool classroom virtually for 16 3-year-old students since public schools closed in March.

“They practice counting by counting buttons on your mom’s sweater or how many train cars are lined up on the track,” says Sims. “They start by counting to 5, then to 10, 15, 20, and their parents help them get there.”

The kids play musical stairs – count the stairs as they go up, and go down. They work on math, cognitive skills, fine motor skills and gross motor skills. They watch videos and answer questions about the videos to gauge comprehension as the teachers provide prompts for discussion.

“I think the kids are doing great – they’re hanging in there,” Sims says. “But It’s really hard for them. They can’t understand what this coronavirus thing is all about; they don’t understand why they can’t go to school. I really miss them and want to see their smiling faces and give them hugs!”

Amanda Davis is a Head Start family advocate at the Lincoln Early Childhood Center. She serves 36 families in the Pocatello area.

“It’s heart-wrenching” to communicate with clients over the Internet instead of being able to deal with people directly," Davis says. “You call them and ask them if everything is OK, and they say everything is OK, but are they really doing fine? Without being there in person, you can’t pick up on those cues.”

A lot of families have needed help applying for unemployment compensation as a result of layoffs from the COVID-19 pandemic, she says. About 50 percent of her clients have applied for unemployment benefits. Plus, they need help tapping into other community resources.

For the Orozco family, Head Start family advocates helped them discover a way to cut expensive winter heating bills. The Southeast Idaho Community Action Agency covered $800 in winter heating bills after they qualified for assistance. “That was a big help,” Orozco says.

Three buses from the Lincoln Center deliver food to 160 children in the area five days a week. With reduced income from job layoffs, the families appreciate the help.

“Our biggest accomplishment is to make sure these families have food,” Davis says.

For more information about Pocatello Chubbuck Head Start, contact Cathy Brey, program director, 208-233-6606, www.pochs.org. For more information about Idaho Head Start, contact Bill Foxcroft, 208-345-1182, bfoxcroft@idahohsa.org, www.idahohsa.org.