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Early Childhood Education Centers and COVID-19

A new policy brief considers three areas to watch in the shift to recovery
Preschool Handprints

As early childhood education centers across the country struggle to meet the costs of health and safety requirements brought on by the pandemic, like additional cleaning supplies, masks, and substitute teachers, against decreased enrollment numbers, the Universal Prekindergarten (UPK) expansion initiative in Boston underscores the need for significant investment in designing resilient early education efforts.

A policy brief released by the University of Michigan’s Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy and co-authored by University of Michigan School of Education’s Christina Weiland, and Harvard Graduate School of Education’s Louisa Penfold and Catherine Snow, among others, looks at administrative data and qualitative interviews to understand the impacts of COVID-19 on Boston’s UPK centers run through community-based organizations (CBOs).

“A major challenge for early childhood education centers everywhere has been instability and unpredictability,” says Snow. “Teachers, often with their own young children at home, have needed to add skills in remote teaching to their repertoire, and then of managing in-person teaching's more complex classroom rules and requirements such as more frequent cleaning, fewer group activities, new drop-off and pick-up rules. Many centers around the country have struggled to maintain staff and to deal with the fiscal consequences of reduced enrollments.”

In looking at Boston’s UPK centers, which have continued to receive full funding throughout the pandemic, the brief’s findings illustrate a “best case” scenario for centers operating in urban areas and serving families with similar backgrounds.

Yet even under the “best case scenario,” many educators still had concerns around the impact of the pandemic, suggesting that those same concerns would be magnified in contexts that did not receive the same kind of supports and resources. “In general, smaller centers and those that are entirely dependent on fees have been more threatened by the pandemic-related closures,” Snow says. “Apart from funding, a serious challenge for the entire early childhood system has been distraction from and disruption to the quality improvement efforts that were being undertaken.”

The brief identifies the following key threats posed by the pandemic to high-quality early childhood education:

  1. Teacher turnover
    • The observed turnover rates of teachers and administrators in Boston were lower than those of many other early education systems but were not insignificant. About half of Boston UPK centers in CBOs lost a teacher during the pandemic. The implication of this kind of turnover is that it makes it difficult to grow a knowledgeable and experienced early childhood workforce — and this would be especially true of areas with much higher turnover rates.
  2. Enrollment
    • Enrollment rates in Boston dropped by about 30 percentage points in the fall, however, the researchers did observe that enrollment rates started to rise again in the winter. Still, this means that many centers saw a significant dip in tuition revenue. In contexts where supplementary or relief funding was not provided, early childhood education centers may be forced to close or drastically cut costs.
  3. Changes in Practice
    • To reopen, many centers had to make changes that increased their direct costs, potentially impacting operations in the future — for example, hiring substitutes, and buying PPE. Again, these costs could directly impact a center’s ability to fund future quality education initiatives like additional teachers or new materials.
    • Changes were also made that, while not impacting the budget, impact the quality of learning — for example, children now spend more time playing independently than with each other to accommodate social distancing practices.

These findings underscore a deep-seated need for serious investment in continuing to build high-quality, equitable early childhood programs. "The early childhood education sector has been in a fragile state for decades, due to chronic public under-investment,” says Weiland. “New funding under the Biden administration is poised to help the sector recover. But it's well past time to stop chronic public under-investment in young children and develop the well-funded, coherent system they, their families, and their teachers deserve."

Read the policy brief.

Key Takeaways

  • Ensuring consistency in teaching staff as investments in curriculum implementation and quality improvement efforts are less sustainable when there is turnover.
  • Enrollment directly impacts the operating budget of early childhood centers. Considering further subsidies to offset declines in enrollment as well as increased costs may be needed to ensure sustainability and reach.
  • Children who are attending centers in-person are likely experiencing a different instructional and social environment — for example, not playing in groups with friends or engaging directly with hands-on learning materials. These changes could potentially impact young children’s learning in these critical years.

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