What California’s Early Learning Teachers and Students Need to Address the COVID-19 Pandemic
The COVID-19 pandemic has rapidly upended every aspect of life, including access to Early Learning programs. Following the sudden implementation of shelter-in-place orders, some programs remain open to provide care for the children of essential workers, while other programs offer support and activities to families via distance learning. Families and staff have faced significant challenges in both situations. Early Learning teachers in programs that remain open have struggled to obtain the necessary cleaning and personal protective equipment necessary to provide care safely during an epidemic, while teachers providing distance learning are challenged with reaching families who do not have access to technology or learning supplies. Meanwhile, families balance the needs of their young children while also teleworking and supporting the distance-learning needs of older children in the household.
The challenges of the COVID-19 crisis fall on a system that has historically struggled with low funding and lack of resources. California’s investment in children ages 0-5 was significantly curtailed during the Great Recession and was slow to recover. By 2019, inflation-adjusted childcare funding had only just matched the budget available for childcare in 2007 and the number of childcare slots still lagged behind its pre-Recession high. California still does not provide care for over half of eligible children and Early Learning teachers make poverty wages. These deficits fall disproportionately on the 60% of California children who are Dual Language Learners (DLLs).
Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, Governor Gavin Newsom pledged to increase investments in Early Learning – over the last two years, reimbursement rates increased and significant funding for expanded preschool slots was proposed. The Administration received funding to create a Master Plan for Early Learning and Care with the goal of creating a roadmap to fully fund a high-quality Early Learning system that would serve all California children ages 0-5 and their families. The pandemic and associated economic crisis means that many of these plans must be postponed–however, it is more important than ever that we not allow Early Learning to fall even further behind.
HEARING FROM PARENTS, TEACHERS, AND ADMINISTRATORS
Early Edge California has a long history of connecting policymakers with the voices of those on the frontlines of preschool and childcare. During COVID-19, we convened virtual meetings with our Teacher Advisory Groups and Local Educational Agency Professional Learning Community (LEA PLC) to provide a forum for them to share their experiences and needs with us and each other. We also partnered with American Institutes for Research (AIR) to conduct focus groups with Early Learning teachers and partnered with Child360, The Education Trust–West, The Children’s Partnership, and The District Innovation and Leadership for Early Education Initiative to conduct a poll of parents to understand their concerns and experiences during COVID-19. The following summary is derived from our focus groups and surveys and describes what would be the most helpful to parents, providers, and programs during this time.
HOW CALIFORNIA CAN SUPPORT EARLY LEARNING
Ensure that Early Learning providers, including Family Childcare Homes and Family, Friend, and Neighbor providers, have the support and resources they need to operate safely and effectively.
Early Learning teachers and providers have been on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many providers continue to operate their programs to provide childcare for the children of essential workers, including grocery store employees, doctors, nurses, and public safety officers. These providers are voluntarily taking on risk to their own health in order to serve our children and our community. Other teachers are working long hours, often until late in the evening, in order to not only provide distance learning to children, but also vital support to their families. Early Learning teachers report that their programs are assisting families with food and supplies, as well as resources for housing, economic supports, and immigration.
Early Learning teachers and providers are offering this heroic support to society despite being one of the lowest-paid professions. Many Early Learning teachers earn so little that they themselves rely on public support. When they return to work, these teachers will be asked to do even more with the inadequate pay they receive, unless additional funding for cleaning supplies and protective equipment are allocated. If the May Revise’s proposed 10% rate reduction is adopted, the result will be devastating to these trusted and caring providers.
We know that the first five years of a child’s life are the most crucial to brain development. We cannot make up for lost time in a year or two. Even though the situation is critical, California must prioritize young children and their teachers in its upcoming budget. We urge the Legislature and the Administration to consider the following:
- Earmark a portion of the $4.4 billion allocated to school districts to address learning loss resulting from COVID-19 to Early Learning programs, including the California State Preschool Program, Transitional Kindergarten, and Kindergarten.
- Maintain funding for Early Learning programs, including removing the 10% cut to reimbursement rates proposed in the Governor’s May Revision. We cannot and should not balance the budget by asking more of some of our hardest-working and lowest-paid workers. If the State budget is absolutely unable to provide the necessary minimum to support our youngest and most vulnerable learners, Early Learning must receive first priority for any federal funding.
- Allocate any available state and federal funds to meet the needs of children, programs, and providers across the system, including private and public childcare centers, family childcare, and family, friend, and neighbor care. Allocations should support:
- Childcare vouchers to essential workers that could be utilized for the childcare settings that best meet the family’s needs and preferences.
- Operating expenses during closures for childcare providers this fiscal year and through FY 2020–21.
- Support and resources to providers and families for the provision of quality distance learning during the summer, for possible viral rebounds this fall and in the future.
- A sufficient supply of materials necessary for childcare providers to operate safely and effectively.
Ensure that the needs of Dual Language Learners and their families are supported.
Distance learning has exacerbated existing educational inequities, disadvantaging low-income families, including those of diverse language and cultural backgrounds. Many non-English speaking families have been left without tools, access to technology, and resources necessary to successfully participate in distance learning. DLLs engaging in distance learning require more support than their native English-speaking peers. Language development, especially for our youngest children, is a highly social endeavor requiring multiple opportunities to engage in oral language and biliteracy development throughout the day. The current distance learning platform does not accommodate for this. For this reason, supporting DLLs and their families is an urgent and high-priority need. We urge the Legislature and the Administration to consider the following:
- The State Budget should allocate funding to provide teachers and families with linguistically and developmentally appropriate tools and training to teach DLLs during distance learning and after students return to school in the fall. These tools should include:
- Training on the use of digital platforms to support the continued care for and learning of DLLs.
- Age- and developmentally-appropriate digital materials and resources for Early Learning teachers to support DLLs through distance learning.
- Information and tools to families on how to best support their child’s linguistic and overall development during periods of distance learning, including the benefits of bilingualism and how to foster their child’s home language.
- Dedicate a portion of the $4.4 billion allocated in the Governor’s budget to address learning loss among English Learners and DLLs, who have suffered disproportionate impacts during distance learning.
Provide families with the support necessary to benefit from distance learning.
Parents have faced overwhelming challenges during the pandemic, often trying to manage their own work from home while also assisting multiple children in different grades with distance learning. Many families are also struggling with stress from unemployment and food and housing insecurities. Despite these challenges, Early Learning teachers report that most families are actively engaging in distance learning to the best of their ability.
However, some families have been unable to engage in distance learning due to unforeseen challenges–one teacher reported that some parents declined hotspots or tablets as they were worried about being held liable for the cost if they were lost or damaged. Other families are prioritizing the use of technology and limited parental assistance for older children who may need to pass classes in order to graduate or promote to the next grade. In some families, parents must work outside the home, leaving care of young children to older siblings or relatives who may not have the skill or capacity to assist with distance learning.
Early Learning programs should take advantage of the summer months to address the challenges of distance learning. By identifying and addressing these issues over the summer, teachers and families can return in the fall confident that their students will be able to learn regardless of whether future periods of distance learning are necessary. We urge Early Learning programs to consider making:
- Training programs available in multiple languages to parents and guardians on the use of digital platforms and how best to support their children during distance learning.
- Every effort to contact families who are not participating in distance learning and determine the barriers that kept those families from successfully engaging. Some suggestions include:
- Creating packets of activities and materials for families to meet the needs of families who may struggle with internet connectivity or lack of devices, and to help children continue to learn through play.
- Regularly contacting families one-on-one to understand their individual challenges and stressors, and work to address those needs.
- Providing information in languages other than English.
- Ensuring that programs have complete, correct, and up-to-date contact information, including emails, for all parents and guardians of children in the program.
California faces an unprecedented public health and economic crisis. Young children and their parents and teachers are making bold efforts to adapt to the changing situation, but support is needed. Investing in children is a bold declaration of confidence in our ability to not only recover from the pandemic, but to build a better, stronger, and more equitable Early Learning system. Let’s all work together with the Administration and the Legislature to make this happen.