Project MOST and Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center Project Provide Childcare Options for Parents in Need During COVID-19

Teachers work with pre-kindergarten students at the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center.

Project MOST has continued to look for ways to support the surrounding community throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. After hearing children in the Springs School District would only be attending school in person two days a week as the already space-starved school grappled with ways to provide a safe model for education, Executive Director Rebecca Morgan Taylor and Education Director Martha Stotzky sprang into action, creating a remote learning lab.

“We wanted to figure out a way to support students and families who would be faced with many challenges resulting from this schedule,” Ms. Stotzky said. “Obviously, the first challenge for parents is juggling their work schedule with taking care of their children. Many parents have told us that they would have to quit their jobs if our remote learning program did not exist.”

She also heard from parents how challenging it was in the spring to educate multiple children — balancing their needs and time on the computer.

“Some of our parents also struggle with the language, and assisting their children with schoolwork is very difficult,” Ms. Stotzky said. “We are supplementing the one-to-two hours of remote work they will be assigned in school with a full day of in-person, hands-on Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM), arts, literacy and wellness activities.”

The program, which began September 16, can currently serve 40 children at the Project MOST Community Learning Center at the Neighborhood House in East Hampton, but the nonprofit leaders said the demand has been so great that they’re actively seeking additional space in order to take more children.

Although Project MOST’s afterschool program is partially supported by a state grant, no outside financial support has currently been received for this new endeavor.

“Parents have been very open in expressing their gratitude for this program,” Ms. Morgan Taylor said. “Our remote learning lab staff is so excited to get started.”

The Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center in East Hampton is also currently trying to meet the needs of those on a waiting list, according to Interim Executive Director Tim Frazier.

A student works outside on arts and crafts at Project MOST.

The former Southampton Intermediate School principal, who retired from that post at the end of this past school year, said the center currently has space for 15 preschoolers and 10 toddlers per classroom. He said normally five classes house 90 to 95 students, and 80 are currently enrolled due to social distancing guidelines. Mr. Frazier said the center is looking for a teacher and two teaching assistants to open another classroom.

“We worked really hard to start school — make sure everything was prepared for the safety of these kids and their parents,” he said. “We’re restricting the interactions with these young children during the day. Parents can’t come into the building, so they have to drop their children off at the door — which is kind of tough for that age — but so far, it’s gone pretty well. The parents have been really receptive and the kids have been anxious and excited to be here.”

From the start of the shutdown through August 28, the Eleanor Whitmore Early Childhood Center offered free, daily childcare to essential workers.

“It was awesome,” said Mr. Frazier, who took over as executive director August 1 and saw the project through completion. “I think our families really, really appreciated it.”

The nonprofit was hosting kids up to 12 years old, boasting five classrooms full of day care students. A pop-up food bank also aided families of students enrolled. It’s been made possible through The Fund For 631 — established by a collaborative of six East End nonprofits — which is currently on a one-week restocking hiatus and will reopen next week.

“Those two things I think really made a difference for the families in our community,” Mr. Frazier said.

This school year, temperatures are taken at the door, and masks are mandatory at all times as well as proper social distancing. A lunch and two snacks are delivered to kids inside the classrooms daily, and security monitors the premises. East Hampton Village police officers also stop by to check the perimeter.

“We feel like that’s the best way to keep them safe for the time being,” Mr. Frazier said. “We’re also opening windows and doors to get proper ventilation, and our HVAC system is being upgraded to install more high-powered filters.”

Project MOST’s sites at John Marshall Elementary School and Springs School both closed during the COVID-19 shutdown in March. At the end of the month, the focus shifted to distance learning, and throughout the spring and summer, many of the nonprofit’s enrichment teachers created short lessons that were posted to the Project MOST website, Facebook page and YouTube channel.

On June 29, the nonprofit opened its nine-week, full-day summer learning program at the Neighborhood House. Prior to the pandemic, there were plans to host 100 students, but because of Department of Health protocols, enrollment had to be capped at 35 students.

“I think it is at times like this — during a crisis — when it becomes very obvious to families that our program is crucially important in this community,” Ms. Morgan Taylor said. “We are there to support them and are willing and eager to bend and to alter what we normally do in order to fill a need. I feel extremely proud of how we have responded to this need in the community. Our inability to serve even more families is merely a matter of space.”

John M. Marshall Elementary School is housing children from the East Hampton Union Free School District as part of Project MOST’s afterschool academic assistance program from 3 to 6 p.m. Enrollment is ongoing.

The nonprofit will also be offering small group enrichment classes for students and tutoring programs on the weekends at the Community Learning Center. Classes will be in STEM and conversational Spanish. Tutoring programs can be individualized or small group academic support. These programs are open to anyone.

Mr. Frazier said he’s meeting with East Hampton School District Superintendent Richard Burns — who helped provide custodial services to the center all summer long — to see if the district can share more services. The executive director said he’s proud of what the center has done and is excited to be part of the nonprofit world, which he was hoping to get involved in after retiring.

“This has really been a great opportunity and a great challenge for me,” Mr. Frazier said. “The staff is amazing. I have a great development director. It’s good work and I’m really enjoying it so far.”

He said he feared how life was going to be without working with students and seeing their smiling faces on the first day of school.

“I always enjoyed that part of the job. When I retired, I wondered if I was going to miss that, and I didn’t get a chance to even experience it,” Mr. Frazier said, laughing. “It’s been wonderful. The kids make all the difference.”