With the U.S. fully reopening, life for many Americans has begun to feel more normal than it has at any time since the COVID-19 crisis began. But for young children, families, and the early educators who serve them, the crisis is still very real. Young children have disproportionately borne the educational burden of the crisis because of remote and hybrid scheduling and through sitting out kindergarten, preschool and early education altogether. And they will not be eligible for vaccines until fall at the earliest, meaning the crisis is on track to last longest and cause the greatest disruptions for those in their critical early years of development.
A real return to normal will require smart new investments in finally building a coherent, robust early care and education (ECE) system in the U.S. That’s the key finding from a new summary of the best available evidence completed by our team of 16 early childhood experts and 10 early childhood policy leaders. The message across our work is clear: we’re worried. The studies we reviewed in depth — 16 national, 45 in 31 states, and 15 local — told a consistent story of learning setbacks and unmet needs.
For example, in one nationally representative study early in the crisis, only 10 percent of 3-to-5-year-olds continued in the same program on the same schedule they had before the pandemic. Into fall 2020, enrollment was still down by over 30 percent in some contexts among children ages birth to 5. Notably, even among those who were enrolled, attendance appears to have dropped. In an analysis of urban Ohio elementary schools in 10 districts, 35 percent of enrolled children were chronically absent versus 19 percent in the previous school year.
Across the country, children experienced setbacks in the quality of instruction they experienced in-person, hybrid, and remote along with substantial setbacks in their learning. For instance, literacy assessment data from 41 states show that nearly half of kindergarteners were falling well below grade-level benchmarks midway through the 2020-2021 year, versus around a quarter of students in previous years. Learning setbacks were larger for children of color, dual language learners, and children from families with low incomes.
Early care and education programs are not well positioned to respond to these increased needs. The U.S. has long under-invested in these programs, particularly in comparison to peer nations. Pandemic recovery supports have been uneven, with many child care programs receiving little aid to date. Teachers were highly stressed and widely reported increases in mental health concerns. This is adding up to programs that are struggling to find staff, just when parents are increasingly having to report back at work in person.
Specific policy solutions that can help are doable with new recovery funding. These include summer programs for the next few years that include young children, tutoring as young as kindergarten, and implementing curriculum and support for teachers that aligns with the best science of how young children learn. On the program front, policymakers can use new funding to stabilize ECE programs, especially in child care; increase early educators’ pay; and if vaccine boosters are necessary, make early educators a priority group, alongside teachers of older children.
The pandemic brought into clear focus the frailties in early care and education programs. The long term changes needed to build a coherent, robust early care and education system will take substantially more public investment — investments like those outlined in the Biden administration’s American Families Plan. The limited inclusion of child care in the American Jobs Plan makes passing the American Families Plan all the more urgent.
For the country to recover, we need to ensure opportunity at the start. We finally need to build a stronger early care and education system that meets the needs of all children and families and that supports all ECE programs and teachers to provide the high-quality learning opportunities young children need to thrive.
Christina Weiland is an associate professor in the School of Education at University of Michigan and co-director of the Education Policy Initiative at the Ford School of Public Policy. Erica Greenberg is a senior research associate with the Urban Institute’s Center on Education, Data and Policy.