“It will work.  I have seen it.” GFPS, The HANDS Program and Covid-19

By Rhonda Zobrak

Wow!  2020 seems like the longest year ever.  It feels like we talk about the same things and hear the same news stories over and over and over again.

Yet every time I think I have it all figured out, I am wrong.  I’m sure you feel that way too.

I am working to pack up my son and take him back for his sophomore year at college only to wonder how long that will last.  Parents all over are struggling with what tomorrow might bring for themselves, their careers, and their kids.

black flat screen tv turned on near bare trees during daytime

I don’t have school-age children at home now, but as principal at Giant Springs Elementary I feel for all parents trying to decide what is best for their children.  What were parents to do this summer?  Most of the camps around town were canceled and daycares had limited enrollment due to COVID-19.

child sitting in front of table with white animal toy and containers of paints

I was definitely in the thick of things with kids from all over Great Falls as the HANDS (Heroes and Neighbors Down at the School) was housed at Giant Springs Elementary since June.

The 50 kids and their families benefited from the collaborative effort between the Great Falls Public Schools and the HANDS program.

Working with only a fraction of the kids we will see during the school year, I was able to work through the safety measures that will be necessary this fall.

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Naturally, there were obstacles and opportunities.

I talked with Kim Yarlott, Director of HANDS, as we decided to use Giant Springs during the COVID-19 virus.  Our building is perfect for being able to stop children at the door to take temperatures and the rooms are close together so the kids could be separated but staff could work cooperatively.

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We were able to keep children socially distanced by having only 15 students and 2 adults in each room.  Students are seated at tables with an appropriate distance between them and wear masks when they are playing games or working closely together.

I worried, along with all of you, that kids wouldn’t wear masks, that they would be toys, that they would trade them, and that they would be dirty; but, naturally, kids are more flexible and accepting than adults.  They took all of this in stride, masks went on and STAYED on!  The kids were great.  If by chance a child forgets, it took a simple reminder and the mask is back on quickly.

It is such a relief for me to talk to parents and teachers and be able to honestly say, “It will work.  I have seen it.”

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All of the superheroes showed up at school.  From Batman to Wonder Woman, kids were excited to show off their latest masks and especially sharing when someone special, like Grandma, made it for them.

Handwashing is so important.  Luckily, kids love water and soap and even hand sanitizer.

The HANDS supervisors simply tell the kids to “gel in, gel out” and they do it.  The ease of children transitioning to new procedures helped us at GFPS determine procedures for the fall opening of school.

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Kim Yarlott made sure the kids stayed busy with activities and projects related to “Time Machines.”  They were able to cook and do art in our amazing maker-space.  In the past HANDS was able to take the students roller skating or swimming.  This year we improvised with hoses and sprinklers.  I can definitely say from the laughing and screaming outside my windows that this was a hit.

Working together, we arranged an additional stop to the Summer Food Truck schedule so that the students at HANDS could eat free lunches to keep costs down for parents and the HANDS program.

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The kids at HANDS already know the cleaning procedures they will need for the fall.  These students will be able to teach their classmates at their schools how to clean up and sanitize at the end of the day.  The HANDS staff performed a preliminary cleaning of their area and the evening engineer went back through for a thorough cleaning to keep everyone safe.

GFPS works in connection with various community agencies.

The partnership between HANDS and GFPS is one example of GFPS creating a place of belonging in our community and creating economic opportunities by supporting parents.

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