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Early Learning Study at Harvard Releases New Data on COVID-19 and Early Education

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative shares new findings on how the pandemic has affected families, early childhood educators.

The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education has released findings from the Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H) COVID-19 provider and parent surveys, which were designed to describe the impacts of the pandemic on children, families, and early education and care providers.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the fragility and importance of the early education and care sector in the United States, with serious, widespread consequences and unprecedented changes for children and families across the globe,” said Stephanie Jones, Gerald S. Lesser Professor of Early Childhood Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “This large-scale study, launched in 2017, is ongoing to learn more about the early education landscape in the Commonwealth and the quality of care settings for three- and four-year-olds. As states began to shut down in March, the study became a mechanism by which to better understand the experiences of families and early educators during the pandemic.”

In the provider survey, early educators shared how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the day-to-day operations of their programs, including in-person operations and staff compensation, and the extent to which these early educators used public resources and social safety net programs to alleviate the financial impact of the pandemic. The survey also explored how early educators interacted remotely with children and families, and how the pandemic affected educators’ personal wellbeing.

The parent survey examined the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on families, including parents’ overall stress and anxiety as well as specific sources of stress and disruption. It also addressed families’ needs and supports during this uncertain time, especially with regard to children’s education and learning while schools were closed.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the fragility and importance of the early education and care sector in the United States, with serious, widespread consequences and unprecedented changes for children and families across the globe.” — Stephanie Jones, Gerald S. Lesser Professor of Early Childhood Development

Findings from the Early Education Provider Survey

According to the early childhood provider survey, family child care providers were hit the hardest in economic terms, across all types of care: 87% of family child care providers said their income had been affected, whereas 35% or fewer of educators and caregivers in the other provider types said their incomes had changed. Unsurprisingly, levels of financial stress were disproportionately higher among educators and caregivers in family child care compared to those in Head Start and public school prekindergarten programs, and family child care providers were most likely to report looking for secondary employment.

In addition, early educators across all provider types reported their mental and physical health was affected. Educators also reported concerns that their work with young children would pose a risk to their wellbeing. Although most educators reported having access to improved hygiene supports, many reported not having access to necessary mental health supports.

Even in the face of adverse economic and health impacts, educators reported going above and beyond and doing the work they do best. Approximately 85% of educators reported engaging in some form of online instruction. Many educators also reported communicating with parents through phone, text messaging, emails, mail, and social media, and about half of educators reported providing physical materials to children and families. Other remote activities included socially distanced visits and food/diaper delivery.

Findings from the Parent Survey

The parent survey was administered during the broader ELS@H study’s third year, when children were between five and seven years old and were in kindergarten and first grade. Of the parents who participated in the survey, all reported experiencing substantial stress and disruption. Sixty-six percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed that they experienced stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 73% worried about their family’s health, and 69% worried about the impact of the pandemic on their family’s future. Further, the hierarchy of stressors varied, from families worrying about the stress of working at home, to basic needs such as food and housing, to paying bills and unemployment. While all families reported some degree of stress, low-income families reported the highest levels of stress and disruption.

Several other key themes emerged from the findings around family strain:

  • Changes in family welfare and wellbeing. Nearly all respondents reported major disruptions to their family routines, with 99% of children’s schools closed and 75% of parents working from home. Strikingly, nearly half (42%) reported a family member in the household who lost a job or experienced reduced employment.
  • Technology use and online schooling. Almost all (96%) children were using technology to connect with their teachers and school. While 96% of parents said schools/teachers provided children with schoolwork, only 72% of parents had been in direct touch with the teacher to discuss their child’s progress. Lower-income families reported the highest levels of school and teacher outreach (87% reported being in touch with the teacher to discuss their child’s progress), including the provision of learning technology equipment (61%).
  • Screen time at home. The majority (90%) of parents said their children’s total screen time increased during the pandemic, with the following breakdown:
    • 95% reported an increase in time spent using technology for learning activities
    • 64% reported an increase in time spent watching TV shows or movies
    • 37% reported an increase in time spent playing video games and 47% reported an increase in time spent watching videos on the computer
    • 67% reported an increase in time spent communicating with friends

Overall, these disruptions and changes in daily life for families associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to influence child wellbeing and learning loss and the study reveals some children are showing signs of strain themselves (e.g., regression, behavioral challenges, sleep disruption), signaling the need for more support.