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New Study Reveals ‘Devastating Learning Loss’ for Youngest Children, Showing That Preschool Participation Has Fallen by Half During Pandemic — and May Not Improve in the Fall

By Linda Jacobson | July 24, 2020

(Getty Images)

Preschool participation has fallen by half during the pandemic, according to new data from the National Institute for Early Education Research. And even with early educators’ efforts to connect with students remotely, few families have remained consistently involved.

This “massive reduction in preschool attendance,” the report shows, affected all families regardless of race or ethnicity, parents’ educational level or income. But the “devastating loss of learning time,” the authors write, was more severe for children whose parents have less education.

The 30 percent of 3-to-5-year-olds attending an early learning program during the pandemic — down from 60 percent normally — is based largely on efforts by preschool programs to connect with families remotely. Only 8 percent continued to attend a program in person, the study found.

Now, with uncertainty over when and how school- and community-based preschools will reopen, the authors say that programs should offer certain minimum features: providing parents with resources for daily activities, ensuring that young children are still being screened for developmental delays, and guaranteeing that young children with disabilities receive the same services they would if programs had not closed.

“Much of what is valuable in preschool education cannot be replicated through remote supports,” such as social interaction and hands-on learning, wrote authors W. Steven Barnett and Kwanghee Jung. “That should weigh heavily in the decisions of both parents and public officials.”

Based on a survey of almost 1,000 families, researchers found that most programs attempted to provide some academic support, such as sending home learning materials and contacting parents and students directly. But more than half of the families reported participating in activities such as listening to a story, video chatting with classmates, or doing a science activity less than once a week.

With young children far less likely to become sick from the coronavirus, many experts have suggested that it would be safer to reopen buildings with younger age groups than with older students.

“If you’ve got low numbers in your community, the reality that these children are going to be terribly infectious goes down,” Gibbie Harris, the director of Mecklenburg Public Health in North Carolina, told participants in a recent webinar on reopening early-childhood programs, organized by the institute and the nonprofit CityHealth. Still, many community-based programs might not be able to reopen, surveys have shown.

Across families’ race and ethnicity, the percentage saying they participated in schools’ remote learning activities several times a week fell well below half. (National Institute for Early Education Research)

Exposing inequities

The findings also come as some experts suggest that officials should consider program quality — and racial makeup — in their decisions to reopen early-learning programs this fall.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has vividly exposed the inequities built into public education, along with the uneven home resources and economic slack experienced by diverse families. Might the city seize this moment to reduce disparities in how educational resources are extended to families?” University of California, Berkeley, researchers wrote last month in an analysis of classroom quality across 1,610 pre-K sites in New York City.

The study showed lower quality in centers serving higher percentages of Black and Latino children between 2016 and 2018. And it showed that pre-K programs run by community-based organizations had slightly higher scores on two widely used measures of quality than those run by the New York City Department of Education.

Finally, the researchers found that in almost a third of the school sites and close to 40 percent of the community-based sites, at least three-fourths of the children enrolled belong to a single racial group.

Now, with the city set to reopen child care programs in order to support its back-to-school model — in which students won’t be attending school every day — the Berkeley researchers suggest focusing on the Bronx and parts of Brooklyn where pre-K quality has been lower.

“This would lift children hit hardest by COVID-19,” said sociologist and education researcher Bruce Fuller. “The mayor should prioritize child care for parents struggling to keep food on the table, not Zoomers who can work from home.”

Limited resources

Meanwhile in California, Stanford University researcher Deborah Stipek is urging California leaders to consider which pre-K programs are most likely to benefit children who have lost opportunities to learn during the pandemic.

“Given the limited resources for [early-childhood education], it is imperative that we identify, measure, and deliver dimensions of quality that matter most for children,” she wrote in a commentary. “High quality is all the more important given the poverty, stress, and food insecurity that substantially more children in the state are experiencing as a consequence of the pandemic.”

The article was linked to a paper arguing that the state’s system for measuring early-learning program quality, called Quality Counts California, might be missing the mark.

Specifically, the tools used to measure quality — which include the same ones in the New York study — don’t always have a strong connection to child outcomes, such as social-emotional development and early academic skills.

Fuller agreed that these commonly used quality indicators have “limited power” but, he said, “at least they allow us to gauge quality across neighborhoods [and] demographic groups.”

For district-level leaders, the more short-term concerns focus on how to reach children who lost bonds with teachers or who are now moving into kindergarten without the usual in-person transition activities.

On the institute’s webinar with CityHealth, Leslie McKinily, deputy chief of early childhood for Chicago Public Schools, said as the district plans both in-person and remote learning options for the fall, the goal for incoming kindergartners will be “really focusing on foundational skills because of the disruption in their pre-K experience.”

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