Early Ed in the Age of the COVID-19 Pandemic

Early Learning

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Research tells us that a child’s experiences in the early years build a foundation of social, emotional and cognitive development that they will need to enter kindergarten ready to learn. For most children in the U.S., who spend an average of 25 hours per week in nonparental care, much of this growth and development is nurtured by the early childhood workforce, including child care workers, preschool teachers and aides.

However, throughout recent years, early childhood education (ECE) programs have struggled to recruit and retain qualified staff, a key ingredient for quality education. This challenge is one of several facing families, communities, employers and states as many voices — from progressive think tanks to the White House — continue to call for improving access and affordability of ECE programs.

Because of these ongoing challenges, ECE providers and the ECE workforce are deeply impacted by the COVID-19 national health emergency and response. Unlike public K-12 education, ECE programs rely on a mix of private tuition, state funding and federal funding to operate. Private providers are especially vulnerable, as most operate as small businesses with narrow profit margins. According to a survey completed in March by the National Association for the Education of Young Children, the vast majority — 89% — of providers didn’t think they could survive an extended closure without supplemental resources.

So, while the COVID-19 response has elevated how critical child care programs are for working families, child care providers are in a difficult position, contributing to high levels of stress and anxiety about their own physical and financial health. In the many states that have implemented stay-at-home orders, providers must decide whether to stay open to serve the dwindling number of children who still need care or close their doors and lay off staff. With their emergency guidance and directives, many governors have allowed and even created incentives for child care providers to stay open. By choosing this route, providers can help ensure children are safe and cared for while parents in essential jobs go to work, but it also means that providers are putting themselves and their staff at risk of contracting COVID-19. Minnesota is one state that is considering setting aside funds in the form of emergency grants for providers. Some states are offering specific guidance or waiving certain regulations to enable emergency child care programs, including the establishment of programs that were not previously licensed.

Some federal help is also on the way for providers that stay open, as well as those that are forced to close their doors for weeks or months. The recently approved Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act includes $3.5 billion for the Child Care Development Block Grant to support child care providers both to mitigate decreases in enrollment and to help reopen if they close. Most private providers will also be eligible for small business loans to help cover rent, payroll and utility payments. As states eventually look to rebuild their economies and get parents back to work, ensuring safe and adequate child care will be necessary, making these state and federal investments critical.

While efforts to prop up the child care industry in response to COVID-19 may help alleviate the short-term challenges, this global emergency has highlighted that the system of providing early childhood education is in a precarious position. Tomorrow, we will release “Strengthening the Early Childhood Education Workforce,” a Policy Brief that outlines the challenges facing the workforce and how states across the country have developed policy solutions to support these critical workers. We hope this brief can serve as a resource for policymakers, as the challenges for ECE workforce are likely to be exacerbated by the current national health and economic emergency and as states look to rebuild in the coming months and years.

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Director of Policy at Education Commission of the States | ssmillie@ecs.org

As director of policy, Siri supports Education Commission of the States’ policy research and analysis work by providing strategic leadership and engaging with partners and stakeholders. Siri has more than 10 years of experience in state policy, including serving as the governor’s education policy advisor in Montana. Siri is dedicated to providing actionable resources and information to state leaders because she believes that equitable access to educational opportunities is fundamental for individuals and communities to thrive.

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Assistant Director at Education Commission of the States

As the policy assistant director, Meghan works on K-12 accountability and student health and wellness, among other P-20 education policy topics. Prior to joining Education Commission of the States, Meghan spent six years at the National Conference of State Legislatures, focusing on human services policy, and earlier, at the Colorado General Assembly as a legislative aide. Meghan believes that education has a tremendous impact on, and is greatly influenced by, other governmental systems, including child welfare, public assistance, housing and health.

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