Early Childhood What the Research Says

Starting School After the Pandemic: Youngest Students Will Need Foundational Skills

By Sarah D. Sparks — June 21, 2021 4 min read
Image shows preschool boy wearing a protective face mask with a marker in hand.
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Young children have been among those hardest hit by academic disruptions during the pandemic, and experts worry that already overwhelmed early-childhood-education teachers will grapple with a rocky transition as those students enter or return to school this fall.

That’s the consensus of a new research analysis by 11 university and independent research groups tracking education for children ages 0-8 (roughly preschool through grade 2) during the pandemic. The report collected data from 16 national studies, 45 state studies, and 15 local studies.

“Even in the best of circumstances, early-childhood education is complex and challenging,” said Christina Weiland, a co-author of the report and an associate professor and faculty co-director of the Education Policy Initiative at the University of Michigan. “The pandemic increased that complexity, and the stress of early-educators’ jobs across all programs has negatively impacted teachers’ mental health. All of that is adding up to a current acute crisis, which is, the programs are really struggling to recruit and retain teachers at the same time that parents are expected more and more to be back in work.”

The report found while overall school enrollment dropped about 3 percent nationwide, the enrollment drop for the youngest grades could be many times as high. For example, a new Education Week survey of state education departments finds preschool rolls dropped by more than 14 percent on average. States like Arizona, Kentucky, New Hampshire, and Washington lost more than a third of their preschool students in the past year.

Children in early grades also disproportionately experienced slower academic growth this year, particularly students of color.

As of this spring, researchers also found screen time exploded for often-homebound young children in and out of class. One study of Massachusetts 5- to 7-year-olds found 64 percent watched more television, 47 percent watched more videos on the computer, and 37 percent spent more time playing video games than they had before spring 2020. Additional screen time has been associated with more attention and academic problems, particularly among younger children.

“Some of the necessary changes that had to be done to make in-person learning environments safe for kids were not conducive to learning and social skill development,” Weiland said. “And hybrid and remote learning, despite teachers’ many and best efforts, was really challenging for kids, families, and teachers themselves. There’s also then significantly less learning time and lower-quality instruction.”

Students in 2nd grade and below required near-constant supervision and support from adults to both navigate the technology for remote learning and to simply pay attention during live video classes. At the same time, teachers of in-person classes reported significant disruptions, as children spent more time on things like handwashing, bathroom breaks, and other hygiene-related tasks.

Support needed for teachers and parents

The disruption and format changes were associated with significant stress for preschool and early-grades teachers, according to the report. In Virginia for example, the number of public school preschool teachers reporting depression doubled during the pandemic, from 15 percent to 33 percent; among child-care center teachers, the percentage reporting depression rose from 20 percent to 31 percent. Across multiple studies in Louisiana and other states, a significant majority of administrators reported difficulty hiring and retaining early-childhood educators in the last year.

“I often heard from educators that there were fewer children, but the children they did have were exhibiting on much higher needs,” said Miriam Calderon, the deputy assistant secretary for early learning for the U.S. Department of Education.

The researchers recommended school and district leaders consider additional supports to help bolster new students entering early grades this fall, including:

  • Offering tutoring, even for children as young as kindergarten.
  • Including early grades in summer programs.
  • Hiring assistant teachers to compensate for what is likely to be more disparity in skill levels for incoming preschoolers, kindergartners, and 1st graders.
  • Accelerating curriculum to ensure students master foundational skills.
  • Partnering with families and continuing virtual systems to help them communicate more easily with educators.

That last recommendation could be particularly important, according to Philip Fisher, the chair and professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, because studies have found both children and parents report having grown closer during the pandemic, particularly if parents helped students with school from home.

“We know that children in many ways are quite resilient and have the ability to withstand challenging times, especially to the extent that they’re involved in supportive and nurturing relationships with adults,” Fisher said. “And when I say with adults, I don’t just mean with a biological mom or dad, but with really anybody in their lives with whom they have meaningful relationships, including providers and early-childhood educators.”

In June 2019, before the pandemic began, the U.S. Government Accountability Office found every state but Idaho, New Hampshire, South Dakota, and Wyoming supported at least one state-funded preschool or early-childhood education program, but they varied greatly in the stability of their funding streams. Calderon said states will need more support and direction from the federal government to provide professional development for teachers and more supports for families.

A version of this article appeared in the July 14, 2021 edition of Education Week as Starting school after the pandemic: youngest students will need foundational skills


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