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.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Mathematics Webinar
Pave the Path to Excellence in Math
Empower your students' math journey with Sue O'Connell, author of “Math in Practice” and “Navigating Numeracy.”
Content provided by hand2mind
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Recruitment & Retention Webinar
Combatting Teacher Shortages: Strategies for Classroom Balance and Learning Success
Learn from leaders in education as they share insights and strategies to support teachers and students.
Content provided by DreamBox Learning
Classroom Technology K-12 Essentials Forum Reading Instruction and AI: New Strategies for the Big Education Challenges of Our Time
Join the conversation as experts in the field explore these instructional pain points and offer game-changing guidance for K-12 leaders and educators.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Early Childhood What the Research Says Starting School in Infancy Can Help Low-Income Children Keep Up With Peers in Elementary School
Research on a birth-to-4 initiative in Tulsa finds academic gains through 3rd grade.
4 min read
Teacher Silvia Castillo, center, reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher, left, and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First on Jan. 30, 2019 in Lincoln, Neb.
Teacher Silvia Castillo, center, reads a book about dinosaurs with Everett Fisher, left, and Jaz Endicott in a toddler classroom at Kids First on Jan. 30, 2019, in Lincoln, Neb.
Gwyneth Roberts/Lincoln Journal Star via AP
Early Childhood Why Parents 'Redshirt' Their Kids in Kindergarten
Parents have a number of reasons why they decide to delay their children's school entry, but it's not always a good idea.
5 min read
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018. Charter schools, which are publicly funded and privately operated, are often located in urban areas with large back populations, intended as alternatives to struggling city schools.
Students participate in a pre-kindergarten class at Alice M. Harte Charter School in New Orleans on Dec. 18, 2018.
Gerald Herbert/AP
Early Childhood Q&A An Investment in Early-Childhood Education Is Paying Off Big
Richard Tomko believes that expanding the early education pipeline buffers schools against enrollment loss and academic struggles.
2 min read
Dr. Richard Tomko, Superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., visits science teacher Paul Aiello’s Medical Academy Field Experience class on Tuesday, January 10, 2023. The Medical Academy’s class uses Anatamoge tables, an anatomy visualization system that allows students to garner a deeper, comprehensive understanding of the human body and medical tools to prepare them for careers in the medical field.
Richard Tomko, superintendent of Belleville Public Schools in Belleville, N.J., has expanded academic programs while restoring trust in the school system.
Sam Mallon/Education Week
Early Childhood Opinion What K-12 Can Learn from Pre-K
Early-childhood education has valuable lessons to share with K-12.
5 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty