Kids, COVID-19 and Preschool over Zoom: Stunting educational progress and exacerbating inequities amongst America’s youngest children

The start of quarantine was rocky for Masada Siegel, a freelance journalist with a 4-year-old son. Writing for CNN, Siegel shared that although she initially strived to complete schoolwork and play with her son during the day, those activities became impossible as household and work responsibilities piled up around her. Instead of teaching out of workbooks, she and her husband taught their son life skills via household chores. While this kept their son learning and engaged, it did not match his preschool experience: At home, there was no socialization with peers or group play, nor activities like art and writing — activities aimed at building academic and social foundations.  

Across the United States, millions of children and parents are facing the same struggles as the Siegel family in the wake of COVID-19 related school closings — struggles that have the potential to cause consequential backslides as students and their parents attempt to adjust to remote learning. A survey conducted by the Bipartisan Policy Center found that 60% of all child care providers were fully closed as of April 2020, requiring many young children to stay within their parents’ care and without in-person interaction with teachers, child care providers or peers. This heightened isolation and its consequences loom particularly large for our nation’s youngest children, as receiving continuous care and learning remotely can be particularly challenging — in some cases infeasible — and may lead to severe educational and developmental gaps in both the short- and long-term. 

What makes these youngsters especially vulnerable to these educational ramifications of COVID-19? The first five years are critical to a child’s intellectual and social development. By age five, the brain is already 90% developed and is rapidly absorbing new information. Furthermore, crucial social and emotional skills are formed during those early years. According to Harvard researcher Dr. Dana Charles McCoy, these skills “support children’s ability to continuously engage in learning environments, manage their own behaviors, and get along well with others.” Thus, it is unsurprising that researchers have repeatedly found numerous long-term benefits stemming from high-quality child care and early childhood education, including better educational outcomes (such as reduced need for special education and higher high school and college graduation rates), lower rates of delinquency and crime, higher earnings later in life, and improved adult health outcomes. 

Given the significance of holistic early childhood development, the consequences of the current vastly altered learning environment will likely follow these children as they progress in their educational careers and beyond. To make matters worse, while all young children will be affected by the move to remote learning, the shift will only continue to heighten levels of existing educational inequalities for young children of color and young children from low-income households, disproportionately exposing these children to the negative, long-lasting externalities of COVID-19. 

Pre-COVID-19 Disparities in Quality and Access to Early Learning Opportunities 

Even before the onset of the pandemic, the early childhood education landscape was rife with inequities due to high costs and insufficient public funding. Thus, considering all the important skills children develop during that time of their lives, it is no surprise that by the time a child enters kindergarten, variation in children’s ability to access early educational and developmental services already results in achievement gaps along the lines of race, income and home environment.

To begin, child care has consistently come at a hefty price, with the average annual cost of center-based child care, about $16,000, surpassing the cost of in-state college tuition in several states. With public investments in child care consistently falling short, many families are unable to afford standard child care services. For example, preschool enrollment is practically universal for children in high-income families. However, in 2018, only 45% of 3- to 4-year-olds from families earning under $30,000 a year attended preschool. Thus, when children from low-income backgrounds start kindergarten, they are 12 or more months behind their more well-off peers, according to a 2015 report by the U.S. Department of Education.

Furthermore, there are glaring disparities in kindergarten readiness when comparing White children to Black and Hispanic children. While Black and Hispanic children were enrolled in preschool at rates only slightly below their White peers in 2018, they did not have similar access to high-quality programs. When asked about the quality of such programs, Steven Barnett, the director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, told the HPR that “it’s lower for African American kids, [but] it’s not good for anybody.” A 2016 report by the Center for American Progress and NIEER noted that “African American and Hispanic children are anywhere from 9 to 10 months behind in math and 7 to 12 months behind in reading when they enter kindergarten.” Critically, research shows that these gaps are not irreparable; higher-quality early learning programs have been proven to close the school readiness gap between disadvantaged and advantaged students. But, that gap won’t be closed anytime soon due to COVID-19. 

Quarantine and its Costs: Child Care Centers Under Financial Duress 

Due to the current pressures of COVID-19 and the resulting closure of many child care facilities, access to quality child care has severely declined. In April, an overwhelming 61% of parents reported that their child care providers had shut their doors because of COVID-19. While the percentage of child care centers remaining closed has declined to 18% as of July, many centers that decided to reopen are hanging by a thread as enrollment numbers have drastically decreased and federal funding has dwindled.

Cindy Lehnhoff, the executive director of the National Child Care Association, spoke with the HPR about the struggles childcare providers have been facing from Teddy Bear Day Care in Alexandria, Virginia, where she helps the owner on a coaching and consulting basis. Pre-COVID-19, she said about 30 children attended the daycare per day, but following the lockdown order in the state, most days saw only three children. While the number of children attending is slowly rising as the state loosens social distancing guidelines, according to Lehnhoff, Teddy Bear Day Care has only been able to remain open thanks to a loan from the federal CARES Act. But, the looming depletion of the funds will soon leave the center without financial support. 

In addition to losing federal funding, these facilities face the risk of collapsing as more families withdraw their enrollment for a variety of reasons. While some families have continued to pay daycare centers full tuition in order to help the centers survive, paying hundreds, or even thousands, of dollars a month has become increasingly difficult to justify — especially given that virtual learning services provided by centers can be insufficient. In predominantly low-income neighborhoods where the pandemic has worsened financial situations, more families are unable to pay for child care services, which could cause a higher proportion of centers in those areas to permanently shut down

Without the stability that child care centers often provide children and their families, Lehnhoff worries not only about the educational development of young children, but about their emotional and overall well-being. She said that when families are struggling to make ends meet and survive, they are “not really attentive to their children,” which she said “takes its toll on a child’s self confidence and on their opportunities to learn and just be loved.” Lehnhoff additionally expressed concern for children in families receiving extensive financial assistance to enroll in child care. “When they’re not in care, we have to worry about [if] they are getting enough to eat,” Lehnhoff told the HPR. Thus, without the safety net that many child care centers provide, the most vulnerable children will suffer greatly. 

Parents as Teachers and Child Care Professionals: The Challenges of Learning at Home

As child care centers and preschools have largely closed, many parents have been forced to juggle their full-time jobs with caregiving responsibilities. As noted in a Bipartisan Policy Center survey, nearly two-thirds of parents have had difficulty finding child care options during the pandemic. For parents at the top of the economic ladder, children interrupting Zoom calls with urgent needs or endless other distractions make child care and work a hard mix. This juggling act is even more difficult for those parents who have lost their jobs during the pandemic, struggling to pay their bills and find employment while simultaneously providing for and taking care of their children. 

For any parent with young children, this new, strained reality is infeasible given that educating young children requires much greater support and instruction, making independent online learning seemingly difficult, or even entirely impractical. Steven Barnett noted that it is particularly challenging to remotely educate “any child under age eight,” adding that “the challenges get more difficult the younger the child.”

Though all face these challenges, the combination of different at-home stressors and the difficulty of teaching young students remotely has led to drastic variance in the educational experiences of young children over the last six months, with some receiving more attention and instruction and others receiving very minimal support. For example, more well-resourced schools and care providers have been able to supply families with more robust remote programming and educational tools, furthering divides between children in low- and high-income neighborhoods. Barnett elaborated that the quality of experiences is “highly variable, and for many kids a complete disaster,” adding that about 50% of kids whose classrooms closed were not receiving any instruction by May. 

Still, more often than not, Lehnhoff says that parents are unable to execute these at-home developmental and educational activities. Compared with licensed child care professionals and early childhood educators, parents are often not as knowledgeable about or skilled at the developmentally appropriate methods to teach their children at home, often mistakenly employing the teaching methods used by their own elementary teachers when teaching their toddlers at home. 

Additionally, the increased reliance on digital media as a teaching tool that has accompanied the pandemic is drastically different from what young kids are used to in their classrooms. Quality preschool programs instead emphasize the importance of traditional play, which supports cognitive development, emotional self-regulation and peer group interaction. A Zoom call is no substitute for in-person socialization. While Brett Castro, Lehnhoff’s daughter and mom to a preschooler and kindergartener in Ormond Beach, Florida, shared with the HPR that she and her husband have been able to provide their son with toys like Legos and magnet tiles, the peer engagement aspect is still missing. At-home experiences are inherently devalued as kids can no longer interact and engage with their peers through talk and play.

Furthermore, while no children are immune to the issues discussed, young children of color and young children from low-income households will again be disproportionately disadvantaged as their home environments are more likely to have been disrupted by this pandemic than others. The very families that were struggling before the pandemic now feel even greater pressure to maintain healthy home environments for their young kids. Black, Hispanic, and low-income communities have experienced the highest rates of COVID-19-related deaths and job losses, causing further strain on their families. “Home environments are much more unequal than school environments,” said Barnett. “To the extent that disruptions due to COVID-19 shift things back to the home, that means children’s experiences will be more unequal.” 

Equalizing the Playing Field 

Amidst the massive challenges posed to early childhood education by COVID-19, calls to invest in high-quality early childhood education and child care ring louder now than ever before. Looking to the future, the National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed child care programs across the nation, of which only 11% said they can withstand an indefinite closure without significant public investment. The Center for American Progress estimated that without sufficient federal funding, approximately 4.5 million child care slots could be eliminated — nearly 50% of those existing now, also eliminating countless jobs in the childcare sector. Consequently, investments in child care and early learning are essential to the survival and continued success of quality programs that remain vital to the development of our nation’s youngest children. 

The economic crisis plaguing the country will not make it easy to invest in early childhood — a space that has been undersupported for decades. Barnett stated that “the way you address the crisis is more access and higher quality,” but that those areas are “already an issue.” Since public investment in early childhood has been a persistent issue even before COVID-19, it will require a large acceleration of efforts and substantial funding to reach optimal levels of access and quality in early learning programs. Without such investments, inequities in the already precarious system will only further deepen as more families are pushed into economic distress. 

There is, however, a source of optimism for public investment in early childhood education: a growing consensus from people on both sides of the aisle that investing in our nation’s youngest children is crucial to the future success of our nation. Although that consensus guarantees no change, without it, reform is especially unlikely. Still, with competing budget priorities, lawmakers will need to wholeheartedly prioritize early childhood education to witness any marked advancement in alleviating educational disparities amongst the nation’s children.

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