The Intersection

The Impact of COVID-19 on Young Children and their Families: Findings from the Early Learning Study at Harvard

February 18, 2021

“This pandemic has highlighted the fragility and importance of early childhood education and care systems in this country.”

-Javaid Siddiqi, President and CEO of the Hunt Institute

As the nation adapts to the ongoing realities of a global pandemic, the major philanthropies underwriting early childhood investments are likewise adapting their strategies. In this webinar, early childhood philanthropy leaders discussed challenges and opportunities during this time, and how philanthropic giving may shift as a result. The conversation focused on the impact of the pandemic on early childhood care and education through the lens of the Early Learning Study at Harvard University. The study focused primarily on the state of Massachusetts as a representation of systems across the United States.

About the Early Learning Study at Harvard

“The pandemic is the canary in the coalmine, it has only served to bring to the surface the fragility of the system, the decisions we have and have not made about the public good, and whether we are funding in really strong and stable and robust ways.”

  -Dr. Nonie Lesaux, Co-Director of the Saul Zaentz Early Education for the Harvard Graduate School of Education

The Early Learning Study at Harvard (ELS@H) provides insights on pandemic-related concerns, disruptions and adjustments in program operations, use of public support, personal well-being, and children’s lives at home. The pandemic has had widespread impacts on providers, children, and their families. To understand the impacts on children and families, ELS@H launched surveys, which sampled parents of young children, along with child care providers and teachers.

The pandemic brought to light how difficult life can be for families, particularly for low-income families. For two years, family-based childcare has been the preference for children at three-years-old or younger. Family child care providers are desirable for many families, as it tends to be more culturally responsive and sustaining.

The study, led in part by Dr. Nonie Lesaux, launched in 2017. As a result, ELS@H collected data in both pre-pandemic conditions and pandemic conditions. The study was distributed with a census-like approach – 95,000 doors were knocked on.

The study demonstrated that the pandemic is a stressor in an already-stressed system. Family child care providers were by far the hardest hit in the pandemic. These providers lost their income over night. The study also found that despite the challenges, the family provider workforce is very dedicated and resilient.

Samantha Aigner-Treworgy echoed Dr. Lesaux, sharing how the study highlighted the vulnerabilities of the field and cracks in the system. Family child care providers had been declining prior to the pandemic – over the past five years, 20% of providers have been lost. The pandemic brought additional challenges related to financing structures, the workforce, and the need for state-level systems to pivot to meet the changing needs of early childhood providers.

Considerations to Elevate

“We can advocate for the workforce, parents and children.”

-Nikki Burnett, Executive Director of Educare in Springfield, Massachusetts

Nikki Burnett spoke on behalf of Educare, one of the nation’s largest networks of early childhood schools, and the only early childhood school system in Massachusetts. Employees in the early education and child care workforce are both essential and most vulnerable. The pay and benefits for the early childhood workforce are not conducive for survival, though most are eligible for state benefits. Samantha Aigner-Treworgy echoed this, stating that the early childhood workforce must be met where they are and provided with the necessary additional support.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux continued, emphasized the importance of focusing on the needs of child care staff. Quality improvement, she said, is not about the children but rather the adults who are providing a critical service. She explained that there are no other human practice structures that focus on income rather than the input and human capital. In consideration of well-being that is confounded with quality outcomes, attention needs to be placed on provider staff. The educators are the sector, she furthered, they are the theory of change and outcome.

Family and Provider Wellbeing, Now and in the Future 

“While this is a Massachusetts perspective, there are trends here that transcend any state.”

-Samantha Aigner-Treworgy, Commissioner for the Massachusetts Department of Early Education and Care

Samantha Aigner-Treworgy noted that a variety of programs must be created to meet the needs of parents. During the pandemic, family needs are quickly changing and are outside of their control. She shared that families need choices in child care to better respond to their own reality and ensure their children have a bright future.

Aigner-Treworgy explained that many families are opting out of group care settings for health and safety reasons. Massachusetts is seeing reductions in enrollment, so alternate services should be examined to make sure all children have access.

Currently, many families do not have the basic equipment for at-home learning. Families might be offered the same services, but without access to internet and technology, there is a divide. Many parents did not know how to navigate virtual classrooms. Through a demographic and need-based approach, it might be possible to more equitably address the needs of children.

Dr. Nonie Lesaux pointed out that system-building cannot be at the level of the individual. She said that when early childhood programs are funded at a grain size above the individual, a more robust, efficient funding model can be created. As an example, Dr. Lesaux shared that Head Start and state-funded pre-K programs were not as stressed since they are funded whether or not a child attends. She explained the importance of funding child care based on demographics.

Aigner-Treworgy posed that there are some immediate interventions that could be beneficial. She explained the importance of soliciting feedback and listening to families and child care providers. Rather than pit sectors of the system against each other with ingrained tensions, an effort should be made to understand issues from both sides.

In summary, the Harvard study identified the micro-features of quality early childhood education rather than the broad indicators. In doing so, they can ensure humans are supported and practitioners have access to the resources they need. Policy strategy cannot continue to be siloed and should focus on what goes into child care, regardless of the type of facility. Early childhood educators assigned to classrooms should be built up and provided access to the things the need most.

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