Pre-to-3: While some preschoolers learn online, most programs seek stability
Stimulus funds provide $3.5 billion that will help cover the cost of care for children of essential workers, but offer “minimal resources to providers or their staff.”
This latest Pre-to-3 column focuses on the disruption in the early-childhood education field due to the coronavirus — for children and their teachers. Past installments of Pre-to-3 can be found here.
Early last month, Rhian Allvin, executive director of the National Association for the Education of Young Children, published a blog post with the title, “Making Connections: There’s No Such Thing as Online Preschool.”
The premise of the article was that an online early education curriculum is in no way “comparable to a high-quality, full-day, full-year early-childhood education program.”
Unfortunately, stay-at-home orders have put a halt to many young children’s first year in the classroom, and online platforms are the primary way they are interacting with their teachers and classmates.
“I have video called them to discuss the unexpected changes that have been happening, see what they have been doing since we have been out of school, and let them know I miss them,” says Heather Williams, a pre-K teacher at Central Georgia Technical College’s Child Development Center in Warner Robins, Georgia.
With her students’ families already using the Remind app before schools closed, she was able to continue using the tool to send daily suggestions for learning and play at home. “They send me pictures of things they are doing at home, and I share them with the class,” she says, adding that some families also connect with her through a Facebook group.
Layoffs and closures
But Williams is among the early educators fortunate enough to be working. The majority of those in the early education field work in community- and home-based programs. And Allvin estimates roughly 70% of child care centers across the country shut down in the span of a week.
A tracker from the Hunt Institute shows 17 states have closed child care facilities, while the rest are allowing programs to operate under certain restrictions.
“We’re in a position so that so many providers are making decisions about whether they lay off their staff,” Allvin says, adding that with some providers focusing on how to access stimulus money to stabilize their programs, most can’t “even start to wrap their heads around making content available for families.”
In addition, while stimulus funds for child care — $3.5 billion — will help cover the cost of care for children of essential workers, it provides “minimal resources to providers or their staff,” said Lea Austin, executive director of the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment at the University of California, Berkeley. The center is conducting a survey to better understand the extent of layoffs and closures in California.
The center’s leaders argue those early educators continuing to work should be earning “hazard pay.” And advocates are calling for future stimulus packages to include much more for the child care industry.
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Other experts also note that Paycheck Protection Program loans, offered by the Small Business Administration, are unlikely to be a solution for child care providers because the needs of programs go beyond payroll expenses.
Learning moves home
The pandemic demonstrates the fragmentation in the early-childhood education field. Whether some form of early education continues for young children depends on what type of program they are enrolled in and how that program is funded.
Some state funded pre-K programs, such as those in Georgia and Alabama, have acted quickly to develop at-home learning resources and encourage teachers to connect with students over Zoom and other platforms.
The Alabama Department of Early Childhood created a “home instruction plan” blueprint that includes lesson plan guides for teachers and suggested activities and recommendations for supporting parents as they try to work at home and care for their children.
“Many [teachers] have communicated daily with their students,” says Misty Blackmon, a regional director for the department’s Office of School Readiness. “We have some directors that are doing live story time daily and definitely thinking outside of the box.”
In Georgia, Becky Haden, one of three pre-K teachers at Mulberry Creek Elementary School in the Harris County School District, said she and her colleagues worked to find some open-ended activities that fit with the themes and routines students were following in class. Before schools closed, students were working on a dinosaur unit, so Thomas asked parents to let their children excavate some chocolate chips from a cookie.
“I’m not one for encouraging them to do the apps,” Haden says, adding she views many educational apps as “glorified worksheets.”
“That is not what these 4- and 5-year-olds need to be doing.”
School closures have naturally led some experts to reiterate screen time guidelines for young children, but the pandemic also demonstrates the important role of technology in keeping children connected to teachers and classmates. Public television stations are also filling gaps with academic content for families with limited access to internet or multiple devices.
Remaining available to families
Teachers say they recognize parents are under extreme stress and might be experiencing job loss or reduced income. Many teachers are recording messages to students if dialing into a live classroom session doesn’t fit into a family’s routine and recommending projects or activities that use materials most families have at home.
Haden says the “biggest thing” for her is knowing the families and remaining available to them.
Jaritza Jimenez, a lead teacher and site director at the Sunny West Child Development Center in Los Angeles, says she’s hoping her families will make time for music in the kitchen, doing art outside and using household items for nature, math and science activities. But parents, she says, are also worried about losing their child’s slot when the center reopens. The center receives federal funding through an Early Head Start-Child Care Partnership grant to Child360, a Los Angeles nonprofit.
Early educators also express concern over how this prolonged time away from the structure of the classroom will impact children’s development and adjustment to kindergarten.
“Pre-K is their first experience with school, and it has a significant impact on their entire educational career. My students won’t get to re-do or makeup this missed time,” Williams says. “They are missing a lot of opportunities for socialization, which is a major focus of Pre-K.”
Teachers are also feeling a sense of loss.
“The main challenge of all this is that I am not able to interact with the children physically, missing their laughs, giggles, crying, talking and their faces,” Jimenez says. “As a teacher you have a passion for teaching, and not being able to do it physically and one on one with children makes it hard.”