Findings from the most recent FutureEd report reveal a disconcerting trend in early education. Nationwide, preschool participation plunged from 61% of eligible students attending pre-pandemic to 36%at the outset of the 2020-21 school year. Midway through that same school year, nearly half of kindergartners in 41 states were falling well below grade-level benchmarks. After more than two years of interruptions and volatility at school and home, these patterns shouldn’t be surprising — but they are cause for concern.
The data makes it clear: Now is the time to rethink our approach to early education. The educational fallout of COVID-19 for the country’s youngest learners is significant. From birth to age 8, children experience rapid cognitive, social, emotional and physical development. Childcare facilities, Head Start programs, preschools and kindergarten classrooms play essential roles during these years. By expanding services and emphasizing continuity in every child’s education, we can close gaps caused by COVID-19 and make the early childhood learning experience better than it was before.
Expanding services, increasing access
COVID-19 created learning gaps for students of all ages. Studies are documenting first- and second-graders who are already as much as a year behind academically. The pandemic also increased the learning loss that happens every summer. Opening early education support services to older children (for example, through second grade) and expanding support during the summer will create more opportunities to help children.
Parallel with expanding services, we need to make access to early education support more equitable. Offering programs only one hour before school and one hour after, or only from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in the summer, leaves out families in which caregivers work nontraditional hours. True equity requires a mixed-delivery system wherein programs available in the classroom also are available at home. Families should be able to opt for either setting, or a blend of the two settings, and they should have access to resources in their own language. Providing parents with more options and flexibility will maximize family engagement in those critical early learning years.
Creating continuity in early education
Access solves only part of the current challenge in early learning. We have to create more continuity, as well. Right now, services for our youngest learners are disparate. Some organizations focus on health, others on child care and still others on academic readiness. Between ages 2 and 5, a child could experience three educational handoffs: starting out in a child care facility or a preschool, followed by a pre-K or Head Start program, followed by kindergarten. All of those organizations and efforts are important, but rarely are they coordinated. It’s a maze of services and settings for children and families to navigate.
Organizations serving young children must find ways to co-create solutions and give caregivers a simplified, streamlined view of each child’s needs and progress. This is not just about capturing and organizing data; it’s about putting information in the hands of parents and caregivers and keeping them at the center of our early learning programs. We can make it easier for families to decide on services, and other caring adults should be part of the overall effort to support each family and their child.
Bridging the gap
Nonprofits such as Waterford.org can help bridge the gap between the home and outside care services. We can foster deep collaboration among elementary schools, Head Start programs, child care providers and private preschools. We can connect local and national nonprofit organizations, as well as state and federal programs and agencies.
Everyone involved in early education should view school readiness as a two-way street. Not only do we aim to give children and families what they need to be ready for that first day of school, but we also know that any centers of learning outside the home must be ready to effectively embrace those children and their families when they arrive. Programs built to flexibly fit into a family’s daily life make it easier for parents to support student learning and connect to the broader community. If we can change when and how we offer support in early education, we will set up students for a lifetime of success.
LaTasha Hadley, Ed.D., is vice president of government relations for Waterford.org, an education nonprofit with a mission to achieve universal literacy for children through equitable access and family engagement. Reach her at LatashaHadley@waterford.org.
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