Cheryse Singleton-Nobles knows her 2-year-old son is going back.
While toddlers grab colors, numbers, and shapes, she says, “he’s back on stage with ‘me, me, me.'” He doesn’t want to share anymore. He struggles to follow a routine and gets distracted by all his toys.
Singleton-Nobles, 47, attributes this backtracking to the COVID-19 pandemic that recently forced its son’s free kindergarten in Chicago to close its campus.
This kindergarten, a center for early learning that belongs to a national network of Head Start-funded programs called Educare, closed its doors in the spring but managed to reopen with limited capacity in the fall. The center had to return to distance learning again in mid-November amid a rise in COVID-19 infection rates.
Now her son – like countless other young children across the country – is slipping into his social-emotional skills. And these losses can be devastating to the long-term success of these children. Preschool years are among the most formative in a child’s life. A student starting kindergarten without a kindergarten class is more likely to repeat a grade, require special education or drop out.
“Unfortunately, the effects of this pandemic will be felt for children for years to come,” said Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician who heads the Seattle Children’s Hospital Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development.
Many children were already behind
For low-income children in America, there were already high-quality opportunities to prepare for kindergarten shortage before the pandemic hit. Nationally, child care was inaccessible to many Americans, which cost as much as $ 9,600 on average last year, an analysis by Child Care Aware of America found.
Head Start, a federal youth education program designed for low-income families, served only 36% of eligible 3- to 5-year-olds. Early start starts reach even fewer families, with only 11% of eligible infants and toddlers enrolling.
As a result, as many as half of low-income children already began in kindergarten without being ready for it. A child considered “Kindergarten ready”, if she e.g. Speaks in complete sentences most of the time, can identify at least five colors and knows her first and last name.
Most brain development occurs within 5 years – the brain triples in size in the first two years of life – that’s why a child’s learning experiences in that window are so predictable for her success later. “Children are born with wiring to learn,” Christakis said. “Early learning experiences form the basis of their minds for the rest of their lives.”
A number of studies show that children who participate in quality education programs are more likely to go to kindergarten with a solid understanding of language and math and, for example, have positive relationships with their parents. They are also less likely to struggle with behavioral problems. Some studies suggest that students who enter kindergarten without having learned to share, express their feelings, and listen to instructions, e.g. less likely to take high school.
Preschool education, advocating for stress, is not just childcare. This is especially true when such training takes place in a formal context. (Although childcare centers are often more expensive, they often strive to meet children’s developmental standards and are therefore better for children’s development than home-based childcare, research shows.)
How badly do the children slip? ‘It is large’
It is difficult to quantify how much the pandemic is undermining children’s readiness for kindergarten. Schools like those in the Educare network are in the process of rolling out virtual assessments designed to measure students’ performance levels, but experts warn that the results of these evaluations must be taken with a grain of salt. Assessments made by parents – versus a trained professional – are subject to all sorts of complications.
But anecdotal evidence – paired with existing research in early childhood education – suggests the damage could be serious.
“We do not know the full effect for a while,” Christakis said, “but there is every reason to believe it is great.”
And it’s probably worse for low – income children.
Their families have faced the double fate of sky-high preschool costs and widespread job insecurity – not to mention the fear of entering into COVID-19, which has disproportionately infected people of color.
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Since the pandemic hit, the cost of high-quality preschool education has only risen. Research from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank, shows the monthly cost of center-based childcare has increased by 47% on average nationwide. The trend has been particularly pronounced in programs for 3- and 4-year-olds, mainly due to the significant decrease in recommended class sizes to reduce the potential spread of coronavirus.
In many cases, childcare is simply no longer available. A study conducted this summer by the National Association for the Education of Young Children found 18% of childcare centers nationwide had closed indefinitely due to the increase in operating costs.
Although parents may find an opening for their child or afford the fee, many choose not to send their children to kindergarten for fear of exposing them to the virus. And while some programs, including many of Educare’s 25 schools, have virtual programming, uneven Internet access means many families does not have the luxury.
Lots of juggling, parental stress high
The result: Even fewer young children than before the pandemic get the preparation they need to succeed in school. While enrollment is down for all school children, the downturn is especially strong in kindergarten and kindergartenaccording to an NPR analysis of data from 60 of the country’s school districts. The average decrease in kindergarten enrollment was e.g. 16%.
Preliminary data from some states paint an even uglier picture for kindergarten and childcare. In Colorado, for example, enrollment for infants, toddlers and preschoolers from July had returned to only about half of what it was before the pandemic.
Singleton-Noble’s son is relatively lucky because he still gets a formal education, if only virtually. Singleton-Nobles is also better equipped than many parents to guide him in his learning: She runs a licensed daycare in her home. (She sends her son to a Head Start program in part so he can socialize and learn from peers in a formal context.)
Yet the virtual programming, which consists of two 15-minute group sessions a day, can hardly be compared to the training he typically receives. And Singleton-Nobles finds herself overwhelmed as she tries to juggle her paid job of being her son’s primary teacher.
Parents who have taken on the role of early educator – if they even have the time and resources to do so – are below unprecedented levels of stress, potentially hampering their ability to provide structured learning. As with Singleton-Nobles’ son, virtual programming must be divided into short pieces in part to accommodate children’s attention.
In fact, it can also be particularly difficult to engage young children in distance learning. They learn best when their learning is experiential – when they can touch and handle objects and measure the reactions of their teachers.
It is also difficult to give young children what Jenny Stillwaggon Radesky, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan Medical School, described as “microbites of feedback” in a virtual setting. As an example, Stillwaggon Radesky pointed to a situation where an infant smiles or laughs or coos. An adult can respond to the action by also smiling or laughing or cooing, an intuitive form of positive reinforcement that shows the child how her behavior affects those around her.
Quality programs for early learning recognize the greater impact of these microbits of feedback, and they are aware of how this feedback is delivered.
“You need someone who is actively involved in this process, monitoring and supporting their learning throughout the day,” said Angie Lampkin, head of Educare Chicago. “Not all parents understand (a young child’s) developmental progression, and this is where the teacher comes into play.”
Absent center-based schooling, including young children missing on early intervention services that they may have received otherwise – for example, specialists who help them develop their fine and gross motor skills.
“You just do not get the same level of observation and support that you would have in a personal classroom,” said Cynthia Jackson, head of the Educare Learning Network.
The impact is particularly pronounced on low-income children who tend to rely on school-based services, said Stillwaggon Radesky, whose clinical work focuses on developmental and behavioral problems among low-income children. Now that she has tested many of her patients via video versus in person, she said it is much harder to see how they play and work through other activities.
In addition to the limitations of virtual early learning, many children also miss out on physical activity, which promotes healthy development and often play time with their peers. Meanwhile, centers that remain open often have to limit students’ interaction, refer them to their own play areas, and thus limit their ability to practice sharing.
It is in these moments that children build social intelligence – how to handle disputes and negotiate with a friend and are sympathetic. Research shows that such intelligence is a great predictor of one’s success in school and in life.
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Then there is the stress of the pandemic itself, which could lead to or put together the kinds of trauma in early childhood that can undermine later success in school. Children are like mushrooms and feed their caregiver’s stress, which can make it anything but impossible to learn and disrupt the biology of the brain and affect how it develops.
‘Keep a child’s mind engaged’
The bright side is that children are remarkably robust. And parents, as Stillwaggon Radesky explained, are more empowered to make up for the losses than they may realize. Although they may not have the education needed to advance their children’s academic progress, they can invest their energy in teaching them other skills – whether it’s how to use the pot or how to regulate their emotions.
“There are learning opportunities throughout the day that can keep a child’s mind engaged,” Stillwaggon Radesky said.
But schools can’t just make money on children’s resilience. Experts and lawyers say an infusion of federal money is needed to ensure the country’s youngest children thrive when the dust from the pandemic settles. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security Act, passed by Congress in March, allocated only $ 3.5 billion in block grants to improve access to child care. A separate Proposal of $ 50 billion – introduced in the summer to make up for this shortcoming – has not yet received approval from the Senate.
And some researchers argue that more money for better early learning is not enough either. To the benefits of such opportunities to hold on recent surveys suggests that children should also receive high-quality basic education. And so it is hanging in balance during the pandemic.
“The United States has made a huge sacrifice from its youngest citizens to protect the health of the elderly,” he said. a recent study co-author of Christakis analyzing the potential life years lost due to the closure of the primary school pandemic. Although relatively few children experience the medical consequences of COVID-19, Christakis said, “they bear the burden of … all of its side effects.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story gave the wrong title for Angie Lampkin. She instructs Educare Chicago.
Early childhood education coverage in the USA TODAY is made possible in part with a grant from Save the Children. Save the Children does not provide editorial input.
This article was originally published in USA TODAY: COVID in day care: Online kindergarten means fewer ready for kindergarten