A Preschool Watering Hole, Evaporated

A Preschool Watering Hole, Evaporated

Teresa Ashford

Home-based Preschool Provider, College Educator, Aspen Academy - Bend, OR

Re-printed with permission from Teresa Ashford who blogs about life as a preschool director and much, much more at pinenutsmusings.com.

In yet another Zoom call this week, we (child care providers and early childhood educators around the state) spent time discussing the rules and regulations for child care providers in Oregon amidst the COVID-19 pandemic.

As we can no longer allow children to use sensory tables and sandboxes, it was suggested that we provide each child with their own sensory tub. The meeting’s host shared that “children like it better anyway, because they don’t have to share materials.”

They may ‘like’ it better, but is it ideal for young children’s development? Children ‘like’ a lot of things, however, our role as early childhood educators is to engage in best practice.

While we never require children to share, we do witness and support negotiation, collaboration, and the concept that one’s peer may not yet be finished with a toy.

We know that social-emotional development is promoted through sensory play. Sensory play inspires:

 …children to work together to construct a sand village, wash a baby doll in water, or chase a giant bubble as it sails through the air. The fact that play with these materials can calm a child who is agitated or upset has been well documented. When children play with sand and water they often express their thoughts and feelings.  (Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2008, p. 403)

Two children's hands playing in a sensory table

Two children’s hands playing in a sensory table. Photo courtesy of Aspen Academy.


 A central aspect of many quality preschool programs is sensory play, or play opportunities offered primarily for the tactile experience. Play is the natural learning style of the young child (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997). Quality play often takes place at sand and water tables, also known as discovery or sensory tables. We have observed that this “watering hole” of the preschool brings combinations of children together who might not otherwise interact with each other. The discovery tables provide rich opportunities for children to expand and practice their emotional development and are easily tailored to a variety of interests and developmental levels. Emotional development occurs through play as children explore, discover, negotiate, question, analyze, and synthesize the world around them (Bredekamp & Copple, 1997; Trister Dodge, Colker, & Heroman, 2002). Sensory play, traditionally centered around sand⁄water⁄discovery tables, is a dynamic type of play. This informal and unstructured play setting never offers the same experience twice, but provides numerous ‘‘teachable moments’’ to augment emotional development. . . Because of these benefits it appears that sensory play provides numerous opportunities for coaching, teaching, enhancing emotional recognition, and teaching or encouraging control of impulsive and aggressive behavior. (Maynard, Adams, Lazo-Flores, & Warnock, 2009, p. 26)

Children are hands-on, sensory learners. I shout this Piagetian concept from the rafters in parent conferences and in my college classrooms. They learn by exploring, moving, and physically engaging with their environments. And perhaps this concept is on my mind more so this week as my college students are reading a section on ‘sand and water’ play. 

I understand that developmentally appropriate practice must be sacrificed in the midst of staying alive during the coronavirus pandemic. Our lives are more important… But what will be the long-term outcomes on children’s development? 

There are children in my program and around the world who so desperately need these sensory experiences. These are the children who spend all morning at the sensory table running their hands through rice, pouring water, spreading shaving cream, compressing kinetic sand, and mixing mud. These same children spend all of their outside-time in the sandbox; digging, pouring, and covering their entire bodies with sand. As a result of this play, these children become more emotionally regulated. They are engaging in what they need. 

Children dig in a pit of bark chips

Yes, children can have single-use, single-child sensory tubs, but I struggle to imagine what that looks like with ten children in my home. I struggle to see how one’s whole body could be a part of that experience. I also know that children can have sensory experiences at home with their families. I know this… But it is not the same. Many parents have shared over the years how grateful they are for our program’s sensory table, as folks don’t want that kind of ‘mess’ at home. Anyone who’s spent time using a kebab skewer to dig Oobleck (cornstarch and water) and kinetic sand out of the gaps in the hardwood floors would understand! Families are also unable to replicate the learning that comes from collaborating with one’s peers.

There are no easy answers and I wish there were. These are the issues I lay awake in bed thinking about at 5 a.m. How can I still offer a model preschool program to families where limitations affect what I consider to be best practice?

“If it hasn’t been in the hand and body, it can’t be in the brain.” – Bev Bos



Bredekamp, S., & Copple, C. (1997). Developmentally appropriate practices in early childhood programs. Washington, D.C. NAEYC.

Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. J., & Heroman, C. (2002). The creative curriculum for preschool (4th ed.). Washington, D.C.: Teaching Strategies

Dodge, D. T., Colker, L. J., & Heroman, C. (2008). The creative curriculum for preschool: College edition. Washington, D.C.: Teaching Strategies

Maynard, C. N., Adams, R. A., Lazo-Flores, T., & Warnock, K. (2009). An examination of the effects of teacher intervention during sensory play on the emotional development of preschoolers. Family & Consumer Sciences Research Journal, 38 (1), 26 – 35. DOI: 10.1111/j.1552-3934.2009.00003.x

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your corner of the early care and education world? Please email Ashley Walker at ashley@childinst.org or click the button below to submit your story through our form. 

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Podcast: Janice Lewis on Distance Learning for Preschoolers

Podcast: Janice Lewis on Distance Learning for Preschoolers

Janice Lewis, Vose Elementary

In this week’s episode, host Rafael Otto talks with veteran teacher Janice Lewis about what it means to provide distance learning for preschoolers.


Janice Lewis is a preschool teacher at Vose Elementary in the Beaverton School District.


Distance Learning for All, a campaign from the Oregon Department of Education,  officially launched across public schools in Oregon in mid April. The goal is to keep public education students learning their material for the school year while they are at home. This means teachers are finding new, creative ways to engage their students remotely.

Inquiry-based learning is an approach to learning that emphasizes the student’s role in the learning process. Rather than the teacher telling students what they need to know, students are encouraged to explore the material, ask questions, and share ideas.


Transcript has been edited for clarity and length

Rafael Otto: (00:08)
This is the Early Link podcast. I’m Rafael Otto. With schools closed and students and teachers working to stay connected and learning online. I wanted to talk with a teacher about what that experience is like. Janice Lewis joins us today on the Early Link podcast. She is a veteran teacher at Vose elementary in the Beaverton school district. Welcome Janice.

Janice Lewis: (00:28)
Thank you. Thank you for having me.

Rafael Otto: (00:30)
Glad you could join us today and for our listeners this episode will air on Mother’s Day. So Janice, I just wanted to wish you a happy mother’s day. There’s an interesting story about how you came to teaching. Tell us about that, how you became a teacher.

Janice Lewis: (00:44)
Well, it’s not a very direct route. I went to college right after graduating from high school but really didn’t have any focus or direction and ended up not finishing school and I got married relatively young. I was 22 and very shortly after that I was able to be a stay at home mom, which is something that I had wanted to do. So it was very fortunate that I was financially able to and that it was something I loved and enjoyed. But as my children were growing up, I could see this end date to that job coming as they would leave home. And I had found mothering to be a very, very purposeful and fulfilling activity and I wanted to continue having purpose in my life. So I went back to school and I got a bachelor of science in human development and also a minor in social work.

Janice Lewis: (01:33)
And in my social work classes I found that I was very, very drawn to families living in poverty and in particular children who live in poverty. I read a lot of books during that time by Jonathan Kozol who you might be familiar with. He writes beautiful, beautiful stories of children living in poverty that just really tug at your heart. And so I thought that I would work for a little while and then go on to become a social worker, get a Masters in social work. I took a job with Head Start because then in that type of job you work with children and with families. But once I got into the job, I found that I fell in love with the teaching part of it more than the interaction with the families. So I eventually went back and got a Masters in teaching and an ESL endorsement and decided that I would instead have a career in teaching and I set a goal of working with children who live in poverty through an elementary school experience. And so I have spent my whole teaching career working primarily with immigrant families and families who live in poverty.

Rafael Otto: (02:41)
You’ve been a preschool teacher now for a number of years? Correct. Did you teach elementary grades as well?

Janice Lewis: (02:47)
Yes, I had five years as a Head Start teacher. After I got hired in the Beaverton school district, I had one year as an ESL teacher and found very quickly that I really didn’t care for that because I didn’t have that classroom bonding kind of experience that you have when you’re a classroom teacher. So I was very fortunate that the following year, a first grade job opened up and I taught first grade for a number of years and loved it. And then I’m just back into Pre-K again the last three years. When that opportunity came up I thought, wouldn’t it be a nice way to end my teaching career? Going back to something that I loved a long time ago.

Rafael Otto: (03:31)
Tell me about the number of preschool classrooms that are available in Beaverton.

Janice Lewis: (03:40)
There are seven currently. Each site has a morning and an afternoon class. So it’s growing, but it’s still very, very small percentage of the number of four-year-olds in our district who are able to get that high quality preschool experience.

Rafael Otto: (04:08)
How does the preschool stay connected to what’s happening in the elementary grades?

Janice Lewis: (04:13)
Well that varies from school to school. At Vose I am in the best possible situation. I have an excellent principal, Monique Singleton and an excellent vice-principal, Melissa Holz who both absolutely understand and support the value of early learning. So they have fostered a lot of connection between pre-K and the upper grades. For instance, featuring what we’re doing at staff meetings, asking upper grade teachers to come in and see what we’re doing and build on the really good things that are happening in pre-K. And this year I’m in the kindergarten wing so I’ve had a lot of opportunity to collaborate with the kindergarten teachers as they are trying to do more of what we’re doing in pre K and it’s been a great experience. I already had a relationship with those kinder teachers because I had taught first grade for so many years and just highly valued. How well prepared the students were when they came to me. So had a good working relationship already. But this year it’s been different because they’re all dabbling into inquiry and it’s just been wonderful to collaborate with them and help them discover what a great way of teaching this is.

Rafael Otto: (05:27)
I’m curious about in the current time as we’re moving digitally and trying to connect and try to keep kids engaged and learning what that’s like as a preschool teacher and what have you come up with for remote learning options for children and is that possible? How is it working?

Janice Lewis: (05:42)
It is possible, of course it’s not the same as having those children with you in the classroom, but it is possible to keep the connection going. So what all of the preschool teachers are doing is we are filming short videos and posting them on a platform called Seesaw and parents can access them at whatever point in the day they want. So that’s different from what a kinder through fifth grade student is experiencing at Vose where there are set times for a class meeting or Zoom small group. I usually load three videos first thing in the morning and then I load another one a little bit later in the day. That’s kind of like a little bonus or an extra and it’s just really incumbent upon me as the teacher to think of things that the children will be drawn to. And fortunately with the weather being the way it is and with it being spring time, there’s just so much to access.

Janice Lewis: (06:41)
I started a garden with the children before school let out. So I am continually going over to the garden and filming what’s happening and posting questions for them. Just as an example, I went to check on the garden last week and we planted only pea seeds, but right in the middle of the garden there’s a little Oak seedling and a little farther down there are some tomato plants growing, neither of which did we plant. The fabulous thing about the Oak seedling is that we have a giant Oak tree on our property and the children are fascinated with that tree and have thought all year long that fairies lived there and they’ve built fairy houses and told stories about it. And so I pose the question, how did these things get into our garden? And of course some children immediately thought that the fairies must be behind this.

Janice Lewis: (07:30)
The children answered back with, with things like, well, some seeds must’ve gotten mixed up at the seed packing factory. So I’m still presenting them with things that they find engaging and I’m posing questions so that they will think and wonder and then they respond to me. So it is possible to find things that will draw them in. And just like in the classroom, I have to provide a variety of learning experiences. So I’ve had building invitations and storytelling invitations and um, mathematical games. So, you know, you just never really quite know exactly what’s going to draw a child in so it has to be a variety of offerings. And overall, it’s a pretty good time of year and a pretty good place to be. Indeed. I had the good fortune of a Robin who decided to nest right outside my front door and that’s been fascinating.

Janice Lewis: (08:24)
So we were doing a little study of nests where I had just have, I love birds nests and I have a big collection of them. And I did a nest making invitation for the children to use mud and sticks and different things to create nests. I was filming a nest that was by my front door and then I started noticing that it was changing every day. And sure enough, our robin was nesting. So about once a day she’ll hop off long enough for me to get a little snapshot or a video of what’s happening. So the children are very interested in that.

Rafael Otto: (08:56)
I can imagine that they would love that.

Janice Lewis: (08:56)
Yes, they do. I’m very thankful that when I discovered that nest starting to change. It was just like the most beautiful gift in the middle of a really awful situation because that was quite a while ago and it was when the pandemic seemed so scary and so grim and yet this beautiful, lovely thing was happening right outside my front door. I just was so thankful for it.

Rafael Otto: (09:29)
That’s wonderful. What other kinds of things are considered developmentally appropriate in terms of children’s learning during this time and are what other kinds of curriculum ideas or are you using or what other standards are you trying to apply?

Janice Lewis: (09:44)
Well, we use a framework called Habits of Mind and I don’t know whether you’re familiar with that, but what we are trying to focus on with children is things like persistence, collaboration, focus skills that they build into their mind, their framework that will serve them as they go into kindergarten and beyond. In addition to that, we also have some more what you would think of as typical school standards, like writing your name, being able to count to ten one to one correspondence, counting, counting to 20 and sequence recognizing numerals and that type of thing. So I’m doing really a balance of inquiry, such as what I referred to with the garden and then more skill work, but still in a way that’s engaging to preschoolers. So for example, this week we’re doing an overall study on texture. So finding texture in things in your home and outside, doing some texture painting with plants. So my name practice activity is writing your name in different textures of substances. So that could be a food substance like flour or salt or rice. But we also always want to offer a non-food substance just because of families living in poverty are often facing food insecurity. So I also showed how you could do that in gravel or in bark chips or in dirt. And so it’s a way to tie into our theme of texture and it’s just a way for them to have a fun, engaging way to practice writing their name.

Rafael Otto: (11:19)
I’m curious if you’re concerned about the amount of time that kids are spending on screens now that they’re interacting with their teachers more often. Are you concerned about that? Do parents have questions about it? What’s happening there?

Janice Lewis: (11:31)
I haven’t had questions from parents, but I am concerned about it and not in terms of what I’m posting because my videos are short. Anywhere from a minute to the longest. One I think was seven minutes, so really no more than a total of maybe 15 minutes of video in a day. And then the things that I’m asking to do often involve going outside and going for a walk and looking for things. So there, I don’t have a concern about that, but I am concerned that potentially children are on a phone or a Chromebook and just doing things like playing games. It’s a long time to be at home and be away from school. And of course parents are working and have many stressors on their mind. So I do think that that is a bit of a concern. Children having too much screen time.

Rafael Otto: (12:21)
Is there any kind of standard or advice that you would give people other than to try to limit?

Janice Lewis: (12:27)
I would certainly try to encourage people to do things other than screen. Like just simply going for a walk. You can get out for a walk and notice things that are growing. You can go out for a walk and close your eyes and listen and see what you hear. You can read beautiful literature. Some of it has to be accessed online because if you don’t have a large library at home, you’re going to rely on YouTube or the library. But even so that’s better than playing a game. It is a reason that a lot of the invitations that I’m creating for the children involve being outside and doing things like the nest making activity that I refer to going around, you know, collecting things that a bird would use. Mixing mud. Um, so definitely things that engage a child and thinking and wondering like we do in the classroom are preferable to being on a screen.

Rafael Otto: (13:19)
As a preschool teacher. I’m curious about the idea of family engagement and what that means to you. And I’m also curious if that has changed over time given the breadth of your experience and in your career. Does it look different now than it used to?

Janice Lewis: (13:34)
Well, it’s definitely different in preschool than it is in first grade. I would say I had virtually very, very little contact with first grade parents. It was at the beginning of the school year and then at conferences. And really that was about it. I knew my students really well, but I really didn’t know their families. So with our preschool model, we do three home visits a year and two conferences and versus a walking school. So I often see parents dropping the children off and picking them up. So there is that engagement. We don’t have a high rate of volunteerism at Vose. And that’s because parents are often working sometimes multiple jobs just to survive. So they don’t often have the luxury of time to be in the classroom. Another silver lining in what’s happening right now is that I am having way more communication with my families than I had when we were in the classrooms.

Janice Lewis: (14:31)
So families are really needing a lot of help. They’re needing encouragement, they’re posting things on Seesaw for me to look at and I always respond, you know, to the child or to the parent and we’re celebrating things more. I got pictures just the other day of a little girl who was having a birthday party and there have been couple of babies born in our classroom and we’re all celebrating that. So I honestly feel that I have more engagement from my families right now and I think that’s a really interesting thing to ponder. What could we do when school resumed and something you know, things to do that would create a stronger bond between the families and the school. I think that that really needs some thinking. Sure.

Rafael Otto: (15:15)
What else are you seeing in terms of what parents and families need most right now during this time, specifically with the COVID-19 pandemic,

Janice Lewis: (15:24)
There are needs that they have that are really concrete. For instance, I need a Chromebook for my child, which our district has provided for anyone who needs it or I can’t log onto my Chromebook. Can you help me with my password? My child doesn’t want to participate. How can you help me? So there are concrete needs, but what I’m hearing oftentimes under the questions and just comes about in a roundabout way that parents need to be encouraged. Right now we are asking a lot of parents and particularly in our community where people are living on the edge anyway. If you’ve lost a job, it’s very, very serious and we are also asking parents to be teachers at home. Even at this preschool level, there has to be a certain involvement with the parents. And so I have found myself messaging parents through Seesaw and just thanking them. Thank you for continuing to make sure your child is learning. Thank you for sending me those pictures of your child’s birthday party. That was so delightful to see and I find myself saying things like, you are such a great mom. You’re doing such a good job, and the response that I get back when I say things like that shows me that these parents are really hungry for that. They need to be encouraged that they are enough. What they’re doing is enough. Their children are going to be okay.

Rafael Otto: (16:49)
It’s interesting that during this time during the pandemic with parents and families having to balance so much that the role of the teacher, the need for skilled teachers is becoming more and more apparent and that there’s just this recognition of the importance of the teacher in children’s lives.

Janice Lewis: (17:07)
Yes. You definitely see that often in very comical ways where you’ll see a funny clip on YouTube about people saying they had no idea what it was like to be a teacher. So I do think maybe, I mean I know that the parents that I’m serving are extremely grateful and thankful. I hear that often from them. So maybe in general as a society maybe there will be a little bit more appreciation for the career of teaching. It’s definitely a hard job, but certainly one of the most rewarding that I think you can have.

Rafael Otto: (17:39)
I hope so. When you think about the idea of a grade level meeting, groups of teachers getting together to think about strategies and how to work with their children, how to make adjustments, how to engage their parents and families. What does that look like at the preschool level and in Beaverton?

Janice Lewis: (17:58)
Well, in Beaverton we have a really strong team. The seven of us who are preschool teachers, even now we still have weekly meetings. So we have a weekly Zoom meeting, but we also have a text thread where we text each other all week long and if someone comes up with a great idea, they’re willing to share it. We have a shared Google drive right now where we are uploading any lessons that could be generalized to another school. So they’re still definitely collaborating. They’re sharing. We have some wonderful TOSAs that help us at the meetings and they’re conveying information from the district information from the state and kind of distilling it down to the pre K level because pre-K is a really very different grade level than even kindergarten, so I still feel as if we have a strong team connection and a lot of support.

Rafael Otto: (18:50)
Have you looked ahead at the fall and thought about what that might look like? I know there have been many different kinds of scenarios. People are talking about possibly staggered openings or restructuring the school day in a different way. Have you thought about that? What does that look?

Janice Lewis: (19:05)
I think there’s a lot to be concerned about. I think primarily what I focus in on is the budget shortfall, it seems apparent that teachers could lose their jobs. There could be large class sizes in Beaverton. There’s a very, very strong initiative right now in early learning to take the inquiry model that we’ve created in pre K and move it up to kindergarten next year. That’s a lot of the work that we’re doing with the Children’s Institute right now and then from kinder to first and so on. I I just have a little concern about that continuing to go forth smoothly. If there are lots of teacher layoffs or if there is a staggered start, I know that our district has a very, very strong commitment to inquiry and I just don’t want to see that momentum start to fail.

Rafael Otto: (19:58)
Janice, you’re referring to the Early School Success program, which is a Children’s Institute program. Part of what that program is designed to do is connect preschool to the elementary grades. I’m curious, when you talk about that inquiry approach, what does it take to scale that up and embed that into kindergarten, first grade and beyond?

Janice Lewis: (20:20)
Well, fortunately we have some really, really smart, passionate people in our district who are already working on that. And I was just on a Zoom alignment team meeting where we got to peek a little bit at some proposed kindergarten schedules, some supports that are going to be put into place for teachers to access who have never taught in an inquiry model. Often kindergarten teachers want more child-directed learning. They want to see joy and learning, they want to see more play, but their question is always, how do I do that? What does that look like? Where will I get the supplies? So the alignment team that I’ve been a part of this year has been working on that for a year and their proposed schedule that we saw yesterday allows a large block of time for inquiry for children. So very child-directed learning. And I think that not only is that just a beautiful developmentally appropriate way for children to learn, but I think it’s going to be very necessary for this group of children who come back to school hopefully in the fall because many of them are experiencing trauma right now. They’re going to be hungry for places that feel safe and where they feel competent and where they feel valued and where they can build community and inquiry is the perfect platform for all of that.

Rafael Otto: (21:45)
I know that children may be experiencing trauma [from the pandemic] though they might not able to express it. It seems like it may take some time for us to understand the full impact of this on our kids. Do you agree?

Janice Lewis: (21:57)
I absolutely do agree and my husband and I have talked about that a little bit. Children are resilient thankfully, but I do think that we will see some impact on children. I certainly know that I am seeing that in some of the children that I can think of. In my preschool class where I had a mom I was messaging with that her daughter really isn’t responding to any of the invitations and I just offered, is there any way that I can help you? And she said to me, she just says she doesn’t want to do it. She misses her teacher, she misses her friends, and she wants to know, when can I go back to school? This is very big information for a preschooler to process. They don’t really have the ability to understand why this has all come to an end, this wonderful, safe, engaging place that they got to go to several days a week. I had another little boy who wouldn’t come and join in the Zoom meeting and his mom was reporting to me that he’s having temper tantrums and meltdowns and that just was not the personality that we saw at all in the classroom. And so it’s definitely impacting children.

Rafael Otto: (23:02)
Do I have this correct? This is your last year you’re about to retire?

Janice Lewis: (23:06)
Yes. Retiring from teaching. Hopefully not retiring from the work of early childhood. I’m hoping there will be a way to stay involved in the work.

Rafael Otto: (23:14)
Looking back, what would you have done differently knowing what you know now?

Janice Lewis: (23:22)
I’m thinking of when I taught first grade and if I could go back with the knowledge that I have right now, I would do much less hand-wringing and have hopefully much less anxiety about getting every child to benchmark in every subject. There is so much pressure on teachers for every child to succeed and yet children are all individuals. They’re all on their own learning continuum. And I would do more celebrating any milestone that a child made. And one of the beauties of being back in preschool is that ability to look at every child as an individual. And maybe there’s a child who’s an amazing builder and another who’s an amazing artist and you know, a child who’s already reading there, they’re just all over the continuum of learning. And I think it’s unrealistic, particularly in first grade to think that every child will get to benchmark in every subject. And I would love to be able to go back and have done more celebrating whatever milestones any particular child made.

Rafael Otto: (24:29)
Thinking about education and opportunity. And you have a lot of experience working with families living in poverty. And dual language learners. What is your hope for Oregon and what do you feel like, what’s in your view should our priorities be as a state?

Janice Lewis: (24:44)
Well, my hope always for every child is that every single year they have a teacher who is passionately committed to them as an individual and committed to them to their success. And I do think that the inquiry model that we’re building in Beaverton is a really appropriate model for young children. I would love to see that grow in our district. I would love to see that grow go nationwide. I think the idea of children, particularly kindergartners or first graders spending long periods of time sitting at a desk is just not the best way for children to learn. One of the discussions that we had with Children’s Institute was about the fact that children of poverty are often tracked into skill programs where they are focused on learning those hard skills but not learning the skills of inquiry. And to me that just seems absolutely backward. I think that they should have the same opportunities as a child who comes from a higher socioeconomic home. The things that they maybe are not able to have outside of the classroom because their families can’t provide them. I think it’s incumbent upon schools to provide that for the child in the classroom.

Rafael Otto: (26:02)
Janice, I couldn’t agree with you more on that. I wanted to thank you for your time and I appreciate you coming on the Early Link podcast today.

Janice Lewis: (26:10)
Absolutely. Thank you so much for having me and thank you for the wonderful work that the children’s Institute is doing. It’s been such a pleasure to work with CI.

Rafael Otto: (26:18)
It’s great to hear that. Thank you Janice

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Podcast: How Culturally Specific COVID-19 Liaisons Are Reaching Communities

Podcast: How Culturally Specific COVID-19 Liaisons Are Reaching Communities


In this week’s episode, host Rafael Otto talks with Regina Ingabire and Virginia Luka about their role as culturally specific COVID-19 liaisons.


Regina Ingabire is a Community Outreach Manager at the Portland Bureau of Emergency Management (PBEM). She leads public engagement initiatives focusing on disaster risk awareness, community resilience, and household preparedness in historically underserved communities.

Virginia Luka is a Program Specialist for the Pacific Islander Community at the Multnomah County Health Department. Her research experience includes Pacific Islander culture and history, with a focus on Micronesia.


Regina Ingabire and Virginia Luka share what it means to be a culturally specific COVID-19 liaisons and the importance of considering culturally specific needs during this time. They also discuss why accurate demographic data collection matters, and how they are focusing on building community resilience.

The Multnomah County Health Department has a dedicated COVID-19 resource and information page available here. 

Transcript has been edited for clarity and length
Rafael Otto:  I know that you have your roles with the Portland Bureau and the Multnomah County Health Department, but you’re also serving as culturally specific COVID-19 liaisons. Can you tell me what that means? Regina, could you start for us?

Regina Ingabire: This role – culturally specific COVID-19 liaison ­– was created at the Multnomah County Emergency Operations Center at the beginning of March. The goal was making sure that we can be point of contact for culturally specific organizations and individuals to make sure that we are sending updated information because as you know, information was changing really fast. Those culturally specific organizations kind of surveyed back information to us, what they’re hearing from the communities, their concerns.

Rafael Otto: Virginia, what does that look like for you?

Virginia Luca: Yeah, I’m, before I share, I also want to acknowledge that Beth Poteet is the third liaison that we have. So I wanted to give a special shout out to her.

Other than checking emails and responding to folks, the biggest share that I do is the communities of color, COVID-19 partner call. That happens every Thursday in which we have about 116 folks from the community come in to share resources, catch up on what people are doing and trying to find out what is the best ways that we can help our community members. Which, of course, when we hear feedback, then we have to do something with it, right?

We have to pass it on to whoever it needs to go to. We have to find out why isn’t it being done already. Is there already a system that’s doing it? So there’s a lot of untangling that happens. There’s a lot of background information that happens and because we’re trying to do this work from our position in a larger model, always trying to understand the system and making sure that we are honoring the community voice and we’re honoring the community for what they’re needing. What can we do to uplift their voice and their needs from their standpoint.

Rafael Otto:  Could you talk about key priorities, needs and challenges within communities that you’re working with? What are you seeing? 

Virginia Luca: Before I was on this cultural liaison work, I was doing Pacific Islander-specific research and community engagement. I feel like I can speak pretty clearly about the Pacific Islander need in Multnomah County and Oregon. Even before COVID-19 happened, we already had our disparities. We already had lots of things in our community that they we were not having access to that were, where there were barriers.  COVID-19 just made things even worse.

The way we collect data does not help everybody because we don’t disaggregate in a way that is informative for our specific communities.

It isn’t easy to just go to a website and find out how many people, Pacific Islander communities have COVID-19 and Multnomah County, Yamhill, Clackamas, Marion, because each county has its own separate way of collecting things and sharing it out.

It’s hard to tell the story of the community if we don’t have the data to back it up. And vice versa. So many times we, I’m hearing things from my community that is not being reflected in the data

It’s our responsibility to make sure that the stories are uplifted-the story and the data need to work together.

Rafael Otto: Regina, what are you seeing?

As Virginia states, it’s true, for most of these communities, the coronavirus made things worse in so many ways. People are finding hard time getting food into their homes and also there is a lack resources to help their children continue their education at home. As most of education right now is online, parents who don’t have the technological savvy to know how to support their children, and some parents cannot read or write themselves.

So now you can imagine that in the long-term, the impact it’s going to have on the children when the schools are back in the fall. We try our best to connect [communities] to existing resources and the school districts they are coming from but still there are challenges there. And the challenges we hear from the community is how to take care of someone who has COVID-19 at home. Some of these communities could be living in a small space, a small house or apartment. How do you make sure they are taking some care of someone without exposing the rest of the family members? The challenge is real. We’re doing our best.

Rafael Otto: The needs are many out there. I would also imagine that in some cases there’s, from the health perspective, there’s a language need. How are you thinking about that? Virginia, I know you touched on sort of that systems view. What does that look like? 

Virginia Luka: One thing that we struggled in in the beginning was we have all of the messages usually come out in English right? Automatically. And then, you know, people deciding, well, what other languages should we advocate for this, you know, message to be translated into and having to advocate for Pacific Islander languages.  People might not even realize that we have a large Chuukese population, a large Marshallese population.

Normally only people who are doing work in that community know what the language access is.  And kind of showing people that when we do translations, it’s not a word for word. You can’t just give me something in English and have it translated word for word into a Palauan language – that’s, that’s my ethnic group, my mom’s from the Island of Palau.­

There has to be this back and forth communication of, “What are you trying to convey? What are you actually trying to have people do?” And then from a cultural perspective of what other underlying things do I have to point out that maybe in an English form you’re kind of reading between the lines already. And having to know what culturally specific way do you need to convey this information cause it’s not just enough to tell people to wear a face mask. You know you have to also say things like, you know, it’s not a good idea to share the face mask. This is how you should take care of the face mask.

You have to be very specific and try to think of ways that our communities, our immigrants and refugees are going to take that information, even in their language, how they’re going to compute that information. At the end of the day, we want them to be safe and secure. What is it that we have to say to make sure that is understood?

For my community, the Pacific Islander community, some of these directives don’t work for multigenerational households. For example, I have a friend who lives in a house with 12 people and two bathrooms, three bedrooms. So, you can’t tell people to self-isolate, be in your own room. We are still taking care of children. We’re still taking care of our elders. My 80-year-old mother lives with me.

When I read a directive, I have to say, well, this doesn’t really work for my community. This doesn’t work for my own household. Right? You’re asking [people] to do something that I can’t even do my own home. So constantly thinking about what are ways that our messaging has to be community informed and community driven and even community created. It should start with the community because it’s for the community.

Rafael Otto: That makes a lot of sense. Regina, do you have comments on that?

Yeah, just to touch base on what Virginia said, it’s true. We try our best to translate information into different languages to make sure that I can reach the wider audience. I’ll give you a quick example. We created a poster which had information about how to stay safe and also created videos. We then translated those into 37 languages. That was a very successful project in terms of reaching out to the communities. However, as Virginia said that when you translate a message from English to a different language, there’s likely a piece that is missing. So you need to elaborate.

Information moves really fast. It’s evolving every day and sometimes no matter how much we try there is a delay because we can’t keep up with all the information coming out. New guidelines are coming back every day and we try our best. Each day we send information out to our community contacts. We have about 1,400 contacts or even more, and we ask those community members to share that messaging directly with their community members and maybe translate where it’s possible.

Rafael Otto: Have you seen the need to be addressing myths or questions around COVID-19? I know that things that have been circulating, like certain foods will prevent it or certain people are immune from it. Those kinds of things. What are you seeing along those lines and how are people, like, what’s the efficient form of communication for communities? How are they sharing that, those kinds of things?

Virginia Luka: I was on a Zoom call, I think it was two days ago, and one person said like, I heard that it’s caused by 5G.

That the 5G network is the reason why we have COVID-19. I remember saying we need to use true information, real evidence from people that we trust, people who do this for a living, you know, researchers, scientists, we need to make sure that when these things come up, that we are saying something.

I know that one way a lot of these myths are shared are through social media. I’m not huge on social media myself, but I definitely have had people tell me things like, “Oh my gosh, this, did you hear this?”

I’m like, please do not spread this information because you’re actually harming our community by, by spreading these things that are not true. Let us focus on things that are true, that are evidence-based, that are from reliable sources. I just try to tell people to question. Where did you get that? Where did you hear that? That we have this other narrative that I do believe and if you can help me spread that, that would be great.

Rafael Otto: Regina, what kind of things are you hearing?


Regina Ingabire: I heard from the East African community of immigrants and refugees a myth that this is another form of Ebola. So to be able to say that this is not Ebola, this is coronavirus, they have different symptoms. This one is actually spreading really fast. Just to make sure that we’re providing a sense of calm, really providing information that’s needed. It’s always important to debunk that myth as soon as possible because that person can influence the community too.

Rafael Otto: That can be such a tough process because those kinds of things arise really quickly. How do you stay on top of all of those different kinds of messages?

Regina Ingabire: I found out working directly with the community partners, it helps us to be able to reach out to community members and communicate information as soon as possible. Otherwise, we just rely on our other ways of disseminating information to the people, you will be too late. But these culturally specific community leaders are very key in terms of getting information out and back to us to like, this is what we’re hearing, how can we make sure that our community is getting the right information right away.

Rafael Otto: How are you thinking about building community resilience in these times?

Virginia Luka: How I see it is reminding our community of the strengths that they have. So many of us who are people of color, indigenous people, there are so many narratives that you know, a lot of us statistically shouldn’t be here. Because of institutions in place to make sure that people like us don’t survive, that there is no next generation for us.

As someone who is Pacific Islander, you know, hearing stories like my mom being born during World War II in Palau with Japanese rule, while you know, had to hide in caves while the United States was bombing the islands and having to rebuild because a lot of the bombs had torn up the taro patches, polluted the lagoons where they go fishing. We talk about the ways that we have survived and that we will continue surviving.

Yes, it’s really hard. And it’s not to downplay that this is not hard, right? Let us think about the ways that we have gone through things in the past and what are those practices that we can do right now? What is medicine in our life? Cause we don’t always practice things from a Western point of view. Making sure that my mom has enough ginger and lemon for her daily tea. That’s her medicine. Making sure she has enough Vicks and coconut oil to rub all over her body. That is medicine. So constantly thinking – what are the ways that we have thrived?

And how can we uplift that and make sure that we don’t forget who we, we don’t forget where we came from and that we are strong and resilient people.

And that’s only one way. And then you have to actually have systems in place to support.

I sit on the board of APANO, the Asian Pacific American Network of Oregon, and when COVID-19 was coming up, they were able to find ways to get grants from different community organizations, banks to the communities who are in need.

For example, these phone calls, these Zoom calls, right? I am not normally someone who likes to be on a digital call. I’m from a population of people that wants to be in the same room together. We want to smell the same air together. We want to touch each other and hold hands and eat. That is our medicine. That is how we connect. That is how we show we love each other and this is very hard. But that doesn’t mean we don’t meet, we still continue to meet in new ways in order for us to still be in community.

Rafael Otto: Regina, what are your thoughts on building community resilience?

What we’re planning to do and continue to do is to have that relationship with the existing community based organizations knowing that they have that strength, they know what the community needs. As government agencies, we need to listen to them and value what they say. We as key stakeholders to make sure that we work together closely, not just to meet the needs of the people, but to do our part as individuals, as community to make sure that we can survive. At the end of the day to make sure that there’s that collaboration, that acknowledgement of what everyone brings on the table.

I know the city has shared out a lot of economic relief programs so we can disperse funding back to the community based organizations. Just rethinking resources that so we make sure that no one’s left behind.

Rafael Otto: What would you say are the avenues for community voice and making sure that government or institutions or systems are actually listening to the communities? What are the best ways to make that happen? What are the avenues for which community voice can be elevated?

Regina Ingabire: I know from Multnomah County they’ve organized a press conference with Dr. [Jennifer] Vines, to listen to the community members who speak Spanish directly and ask her questions directly.

I think what that helps is a community understanding that now we have someone who is speaking to us, responding to us and she’s hearing from us direct as well. I think that builds that trust and bond knowing that the communities are not left by themselves. And I know Mayor Wheeler has also been communicating, having those press conferences on Zoom to hear from community members and the community organizations and the city. When you provide that space and time to listen to community needs, in the end, not only do you build trust, you show true leadership.

Rafael Otto: Virginia thoughts on that? 

Virginia Luka: In the Pacific Islander community in Multnomah County, we have something called the Pacific Islander Coalition. It’s made up of Pacific Islander-serving organizations. And because we are a smaller community, we tend to have the same leaders show up to the same table and people in the community have some kind of personal connection with them.

I’ve been a community leader for so many years, even before I started at Multnomah County, people know my telephone number. I get personal phone calls, you know, people share my number, I get phone calls from family who are like, Oh, you know, my daughter is going to be applying to Portland State University. Can you tell her how to apply? I think it just shows how connected our community is. It really is about relationship – relationship and connections. Because of the trust building we’re going to the people right now that we trust, that we see stepping up, that we see who have been active leaders, that are the go tos. Right now in my community, that is how things are getting done.



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Homeless Student Liaison Provides Books, Meals, Stability

Homeless Student Liaison Provides Books, Meals, Stability

Juliana Marez, as told to Ashley Walker

Coordinator, Roseburg School District Title VI Indian Education, McKinney-Vento Liaison

I’ve been really trying hard to keep in touch with my families, making 18-20 calls a day. I’m also a member of Altrusa International, which is a nonprofit organization focused on community service. One of the things we have is a program that provides books to children; Mary Marshall is our literacy chairman, and helped me get a donation of a thousand books! So when I’m calling families and talking to students, I’m asking their reading levels and reading interests, and I’m matching that with books I have access to through the program.

What I’m finding is that there are a whole lot more kids doubling up, their families moving in together because their parents have lost jobs or houses, or because child care is closed. So I can deliver several books to one home and you’ve got cousins and everyone all there and able to share.

I also got a tremendous donation of school supplies before all of this happened. So what I’m doing is sanitizing all of that, dividing it into Ziplock bags. I’ve sanitized a thousand books!

I also had a pastor give me grocery gift cards. I’ve got some craft kits and things. So I’m making care packages and I’m going to deliver them like pizzas! I think it will be really fun, and a real boon to parents, helping them promote family literacy. Marta Queant who works for our Head Start program will come with me, to help deliver to Spanish-speaking families.

I’ve always done food security bags for all the district’s homeless students, and now, that’s even more important. I’m working with the district’s nutrition specialist, and we’re providing meals for every child now, while schools are closed. We’re using the buses; bus drivers are just driving their normal routes, and we’ve dropped off 6,000 breakfasts and lunches so far! I’m grateful to my superintendent, Jarod Cordon, and my direct supervisor, Rick Burton, who believe in taking a healthy risk and have allowed me to do these things.

Stack of books

Juliana Marez is coordinating book and school supply drop-offs to her students in the Roseburg School District.

We’re connecting with people by phone. The populations that I work with are not always easy to track down. I had three new kids move into shelters with their families this week, so I’m calling shelter directors and coordinating things, like how to drop off the Chromebooks the district ordered for the students who needed them to be able to access online learning.

Any kid that needs a cell phone can also get one. That’s coordinated through the self sufficiency program at the state, where they also go for SNAP and those things.

One of my next steps is to connect with the Cow Creek Tribe here in Roseburg, and find out how I can partner with any programs they’re doing. I’ve been sharing lots of resources for my Native kids. Indigenous artists, poets, and musicians are doing a lot of free shows on the internet, and a lot of tribes are putting their language classes online. There are great opportunities for cultural education right now.

I worry about some of the kids getting enough fresh air and sunshine since all our parks and trails are closed. I wish there was some way we could agree and coordinate access for those who don’t have any outside space. It helps with everything; I have concerns about mental health and relapse in some of our families. 

Connection is so important right now. We have students and families struggling, and we want them to know we’re thinking about them.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your corner of the early care and education world? Please email Ashley Walker at ashley@childinst.org or click the button below to submit your story through our form. 

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BPI’s Bahia Overton on COVID-19’s Impact on Black Community

BPI’s Bahia Overton on COVID-19’s Impact on Black Community

Bahia Overton, as told to Ashley Walker

Executive Director, the Black Parent Initiative

Bahia Overton is the executive director of the Black Parent Initiative (BPI), which supports African American, African and multi-racial families by providing culturally specific services that help them thrive.


COVID-19’s Impact on the Black Community

In our work with Black families in Portland, we see that the stresses caused by the coronavirus crisis exacerbate other existing issues our people are facing. Health issues, financial situations, whatever. We’re working with families on finding ways to be creative in their situations while stressed.

School and child care closures haven’t been the greatest challenge for many of our families. Some of them are new parents, with children who aren’t school-aged. Some live in multigenerational households, or multi-family households where child care needs are met if a parent does still have to go to work.

The biggest impact on our programs has been the need for flexibility in funding to come up with creative solutions to situations that pop up because of the pandemic. For example, all the people making numerous runs to the grocery stores and frantically clearing the shelves leave our families who use WIC unable to get what they need. We’re working around the clock to write grants to help us provide emergency relief and fund non-food purchases so people can use that for diapers or food, or whatever they determine would help their family the most.

Why Culturally Relevant, Community Based Organizations Matter

A disproportionate number of Black people are being diagnosed and dying from coronavirus—in some states, 40-70 percent of those dying are Black. But that’s not because it’s our fault, or something is lacking in our response to the pandemic. It’s because so many of us are frontline workers, in industries like public transportation, where there’s only so much social distancing you can do. We want to communicate fact over fantasy: Black people are disproportionately impacted by this virus, but we aren’t the problem. Actually, we hold solutions.

Let’s not forget, along with other health implications, racism is a preexisting condition. The stress of walking through this life as a Black person contributes to stress-related illness. Racism compounds all other health vulnerabilities. But there is a bright side! Our strength and resilience will help us get through this! We have used joy and creativity and innovation because we have had to make a way out of no way forever.

Photo courtesy of BPI.

Culturally Relevant Self-Care

BPI has an opportunity to reach folks in a way that others can’t. I frame suggestions for “self-care” by introducing ideas that are culturally relevant. I suggest using games and family activities to relieve stress and to calm kids. Today I introduced a candle activity where a candle is lit in the middle of a table and as family sits around the candle, each person takes a deep breath in and out toward the candle, but nobody blows it out. It’s a controlled breathing exercise for stress relief, but you don’t have to call it that.

We want to help families identify their locus of control. We tell them, “There are things we can’t know, so think about how you’re going to get through this month. Lights on, food in the fridge, joy in your home,” and then we help them identify the areas where they can have a direct impact.

Bridging Physical, not Social Distance

Axiologically, relationships are the most important thing to Black families. So focusing on physical distancing rather than social distancing is key to maintaining those relationships.

A lot of our clients don’t have internet access, or their phones are getting cut off because they’ve lost a job, so our home visitors have become extremely creative. They might do a “knock and run,” knocking on the door and then standing six feet away to deliver a message about an appointment or to provide information about food services, diaper drop-offs and job info. Sometimes home visitors will do home observations by walking “with” the family from across the street.

For those with access to technology, we have lactation consultants working remotely, virtually. Our new moms are okay with our consultants getting on the Zoom screen and showing them how to breastfeed, in some cases using self-demonstration. This might be awkward and uncomfortable at first, but our consultants understand the cultural nuances of supporting Black mothers; if we weren’t doing it our way, it would be far less successful.

We are also creating online support services, phone trees, and picking up and dropping off supplies. Individually, we are providing free online fitness classes, and Facebook and Instagram livestreams, where we can give culturally relevant information to our community from people they know and trust.

Helping Our Helpers

I’m trying to find ways to pay our home visitors more, because they have always deserved that, and now, their lives are changing. They have kids being sent home from college that they now have to support on a limited salary. We need to do a better job at helping our helpers. We need emergency relief to compensate the families we serve and the people doing this work right now.

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your corner of the early care and education world? Please email Ashley Walker at ashley@childinst.org if you or someone you know can help us to illustrate the on-the-ground reality for educators, families, small business owners, child health workers and others.

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Will you help us advocate for children, families, and the early care and education community?  

Your tax deductible contribution of any amount allows us to continue our outreach to communities across Oregon impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Every dollar counts! 

Echo Shaw Staff to Families: We’re Thinking of You and We Miss You

Echo Shaw Staff to Families: We’re Thinking of You and We Miss You

How is the COVID-19 pandemic affecting your corner of the early care and education world? Please email Ashley Walker at ashley@childinst.org if you or someone you know can help us to illustrate the on-the-ground reality for educators, families, small business owners, child health workers and others.
Dr. Perla Rodriguez, as told to Ashley Walker

Principal, Echo Shaw Elementary in Cornelius, OR

Echo Shaw Elementary School is an entirely dual-language program serving students from pre-k to eighth grade. In this piece, Rodriguez shares how her school and community are meeting new challenges posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Technology 

As far as the transition to distance learning is going, our district as a whole has been one-to-one for a long time, with technology for every student. That’s Chromebooks for the older students, a mixture of iPads and Chromebooks for kindergarten and first grade, and iPads for pre-K. So we’ve been able to try different kinds of apps with students at different times. I can’t imagine what we’d be doing if we didn’t have that one-to-one tech availability. Some families don’t have WiFi, and the district is working on getting hot spots distributed to them.

Students haven’t gathered in the cafeteria since mid-March. Photo courtesy of Echo Shaw Elementary.

Both of our pre-k teachers believe that screen time as a tool for learning can be important, but it hasn’t been a priority. But now that things have moved online, it’s becoming clear that an iPad is just a tool; you have to know how to use it. Pre-k, kindergarten, and first graders are just learning how to read and write. If you don’t know how to spell “Google Classroom,” everything is hard!

This is an opportunity for us to do some learning about appropriate doses of technology for the youngest children, and what to do with that time. Looking back, if we knew what was coming, we probably would have been doing technology as more than a center activity, more than another way to do math games, you know? I think it’s fair to say there would have been more direct instruction around how to really use the technology as a tool.

On Flexibility and the School/Home Connection 

More than ever before, we’re relying on that parent-teacher relationship, and we’re learning side-by-side with parents. We’re spending a lot of time right now walking parents through how to access all the tools online. It’s a balance between wanting to provide a lot of tools and support to parents, without making the technology feel like a requirement, or like somebody will be in trouble if kids aren’t doing it. We’re framing it as, “We want to give everybody as many learning resources as we can, and we know that you’re going to choose the ones that work for your family, and we’re okay with whatever you’re doing.”

This is going to pass, and when it does, we’ll have so much more work to do if by then, your kids hate school and hate learning and associate technology and their teachers with, you know, “My mom would yell at me because at nine o’clock I wasn’t doing my math work.” We do not want that!

We’re telling them, if nothing else, it would be great if the kids watched the lessons teachers post and joined the classroom meetings. Right now we’re organizing classroom Google Meets. Teachers are working up to 20 minutes every day, live. And then they are posting math and literacy activities. A pre-k teacher has created a website, she uploads videos on YouTube, and she has a Facebook page for the class, because it’s easiest for the parents that way.

I don’t know if we’re doing anything right. I just keep telling all the parents and all the teachers that we just have to trust our instincts and what our gut tells us, then change it if it isn’t working. We’re humbling ourselves. We don’t have to act like we have it all figured out; I don’t remember taking a class in global pandemic preparedness.

On Concerns for her Community

I’m worried about a lot of our families, especially a lot of our immigrant families who have lost their jobs, who don’t qualify for a stimulus check even though they’ve paid into the economy here. Families who, given their legal status, they’re afraid to use any community resources, even though it would be perfectly appropriate for them to do so. In this political climate, everything is scary. If you’re undocumented or even if you’re here legally, but as a resident and not a citizen.  You now see where one of the new regulations that they just started a couple of months ago is around families who are applying for citizenship. If they’ve ever taken advantage of any public help, then they wouldn’t qualify. It’s horrible. So I worry about our families, just their well-being. I worry if they’re eating, and if they’ll reach out about that.

Schools are figuring out the best ways to help families. The teachers here at Echo Shaw, we have what we call the “School Sunshine Fund,” and teachers donate at the beginning of the year, and we use those funds to celebrate different events, like staff appreciation week, or if someone has a baby, we can get them something from the whole staff. But we’ve decided to use that money this year on gift cards to Winco and Walmart, so if we hear of any needs, or if we just know our families, we can stick a card in the mail just to say, “We’re thinking of you, and we miss you.”

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