O’Leary & Justice: Denying Early Educators Priority for the COVID-19 Vaccine Devalues Our Children’s Most Important Teachers

In our home state of Ohio and at least four other states, early childhood educators sit on the sidelines while other workers deemed more essential, including K-12 teachers, line up for COVID-19 vaccination. Guidance from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention names child care providers and support staff in the same priority bracket as teachers of school-age students, yet several states have left early educators off the list and in the dark (at least for the current phase of rollout, 1b).

The disparity points to the growing fault lines in how we treat those who educate and care for our youngest children, seismic-level fissures that are destabilizing and demoralizing an essential workforce and threatening to bring an entire industry to its breaking point.

States’ unwillingness to prioritize the inoculation of early childhood educators is disappointing but not altogether surprising: It reflects longstanding patterns and problems with how we treat the field of early childhood.

The first problem is how early childhood education is treated as separate and distinct from K-12 education.

Decades of research on child development, drawing from such disciplines as developmental psychology, education and neuroscience, shows that learning starts at birth, with the years up to age 5 being the most important for development of the neural pathways and learning systems upon which all future learning and development will settle. The skills and knowledge that children bring to kindergarten are among the strongest predictors of K-12 achievement; hence, the considerable interest in kindergarten readiness in recent years. This focus situates early education and care as just as important, if not more important, than that which comes after.

Continuity across transitions in schooling — such as from pre-K to kindergarten and from junior high to high school — is also known to be crucial for children’s ongoing learning and development from birth through adolescence. This is why, for instance, “planning for high school” sessions are held for eighth-graders and their families. As children matriculate across 18-plus years of education, they and their parents benefit from efforts to promote this kind of continuity. But the transition from early childhood to kindergarten is made more difficult because of the disparate treatment of the two systems.

Early childhood development and teaching is inexplicably relegated to the lower rungs of public importance. A free public education is guaranteed only once a child is at or near age 5; education in the years prior to that is typically the financial responsibility of the family. For parents who are low-income, publicly subsidized care is rarely funded at levels that reflect the true cost of providing quality care and education to young children. This results in early educators earning far less than K-12 teachers, which makes recruitment and retention of great teachers even harder, and it forces child care programs to operate on the thinnest of financial margins.

This artificial dividing line between early childhood and “real schooling” — K-12 education — became even more apparent during the early days of the COVID-19 lockdowns. The madness of attempting to work from home while overseeing children’s virtual learning drove home to many parents that schooling is a form of care. It provides a safe and reliable place to send children during work hours, as well as a nurturing environment for their intellectual and social-emotional development.

The second issue, inextricably connected to the first, is how much society devalues the early childhood profession.

Child care workers, who are mostly women and disproportionately women of color, have done what no other sector of the education field has been asked to do throughout the COVID-19 pandemic: They reported for duty even as many Americans were granted the flexibility to conduct business from home. More specifically, they adapted quickly to new safety rules to remain open, and continued to feed, change, nurture, soothe, hold, read to, sing to, teach and keep healthy babies, toddlers and young children who, by virtue of their size and full reliance on adults, are mostly unable to wear masks or social distance. In our state of Ohio, child care centers have even served as de facto schools for older children, after a ruling last year enabled them to host school-age students needing a safe place to complete remote schooling work while K-12 classrooms were closed.

Can you imagine undertaking an entire year of this difficult and often thankless work, making personal sacrifices for your own health and your family’s health, and then learn that you haven’t earned a spot next to the other educators who work in K-12 schools in the vaccine rollout?

Early childhood educators deserve better. Governors and health leaders can start by prioritizing vaccinations for them as soon as is feasible. This is the minimum that must be done; repairing what’s broken about how we treat the early childhood sector will require much more. The pandemic exposed what had been broken all along, and it’s going to take serious investments, policy and political support, and major attitudinal shifts to get us there.

Jamie O’Leary is the associate director of policy at The Ohio State University’s Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy and Schoenbaum Family Center. She is a former kindergarten teacher and Teach For America corps member.

Laura M. Justice is a speech-language scientist and expert on interventions to promote children’s early development. She is the EHE Distinguished Professor of Educational Psychology at The Ohio State University and OSU Distinguished Scholar, and serves as executive director of the Schoenbaum Family Center and Crane Center for Early Childhood Research and Policy.

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