Addressing Impacts of COVID-19 on Children, Families, Educators, and ECE Systems

Blog Post
July 22, 2021

This summer, state and local leaders are putting plans into action for transitioning into a new school year—after an extraordinarily challenging couple of years. Leaders should prioritize policies that address the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, families, and educators and support their transitions back into classrooms this fall and beyond. This is a moment not to “return to normal,” but instead reimagine early childhood through elementary school and be bold about the system changes and investments needed to ensure effective and supportive transitions.

The impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on children, families, and educators and the importance of transition was the impetus for a new project and collaboration between New America and EducationCounsel. Every state, school district, and community leader needs to understand what children and the adults in their lives have experienced over the last 18+ months, what they need to move forward successfully in the short-term, and what long-term transformations will be needed to make significant system improvements.

Impacts of COVID-19 Pandemic on Children

Experts who studied the impacts that Hurricane Katrina had on the long-term cognitive and behavioral development of young children have begun to posit that the COVID-19 pandemic may do significantly more harm to a broader swath of kids. Initial data paint a grim picture of children’s social and emotional wellbeing during the pandemic. In 2020, children’s visits to emergency rooms for mental health-related issues increased by 24 percent compared to 2019. Negative social-emotional characteristics like loneliness, anger, stress, and anxiety were reported at much higher rates, while characteristics of positive mental health dropped across the board. And as of February 2021, one study suggests that more than 40,000 children nationwide had lost a parent to COVID-19, the extreme on a spectrum of rising adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) during the past year.

Many children also experienced hurdles to academic learning during the pandemic, and with school closures, virtual learning challenges, and families needing to juggle work, school, and caregiving at the same time, it is not surprising. A recent New America-Rutgers University report, based on a nationally representative survey, more than 1,000 parents of children ages three to 13, all with household incomes below the national median, reflected on pandemic learning. Among families with computers and broadband internet access at home, 56 percent reported service that is too slow. For families who only had internet access through smartphones or tablets, 34 percent said they hit data limits and 28 percent did not have the access they needed because many people were sharing devices. About one-third of remote students in the families surveyed were unable to participate in class or finish assignments because of a lack of internet access.

For the most part, state officials did not administer assessments in the spring of 2020, but the limited data that do exist suggest that many elementary school children experienced at least some level of academic decline, with the most negative impacts disproportionately affecting students from low-income families and students of color. Children experiencing homelessness, children with disabilities, and children who are dual language learners also missed out on services and supports typically provided to them during a normal school year, a likely driver of decline among groups of students already increasingly likely to fall behind academically. Very little is formally known about the impacts the pandemic had on very young children living at home or attending child care, but evidence of the significance of early years on cognitive development also points to major cause for concern.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Families

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic reach far beyond immediate academic challenges, as children have experienced and absorbed significant stress endured by their families over the past year. About 9.6 million Americans lost their jobs due to the pandemic, with Black workers facing some of the largest employment losses. These job losses combined with a lack of available child care caused women’s labor force participation to drop to 57 percent, the lowest level since 1988.

The loss of income caused by unemployment has contributed to a large increase in rates of food insecurity across the country. Emergency food systems, such as food banks, experienced a 50 percent increase in demand in the wake of the COVID-19 recession. While estimates of food insecurity typically hover around 11 or 12 percent of the population, the recession caused that number to more than triple to 38 percent. A March 2020 national survey of adults with incomes less than 250 percent of the federal poverty line found that 44 percent of households were food insecure, including 54 percent of households with children.

The job losses caused by the pandemic would likely have resulted in mass evictions if not for the eviction moratorium imposed by the CARES Act in March 2020 and later extended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) in September 2020. An analysis in August 2020 estimated that 30-40 million Americans could be at risk of eviction. When the eviction moratorium ends (expected just before the start of a new school year), homelessness could skyrocket, with single mothers and their children experiencing the brunt of the burden.

Impacts of COVID-19 on Educators

Educators have shared in many of the hardships brought on by the pandemic. Nearly half of teachers have children at home and many were expected to be in their classrooms full time for hybrid instruction despite the need to be at home to monitor the learning of their own children. A survey of about 6,000 teachers in nine states found that 40 percent said it was difficult to do their jobs due to caretaking responsibilities at home.

The pandemic has been especially hard on child care providers who are largely women and women of color. A poll conducted in March and April 2020 found that 60 percent of child care programs across all provider types were fully closed and not providing care to any children. A December 2020 poll of over 6,000 providers found that 56 percent of child care centers were losing money each day they remained open and 44 percent of providers were confronting so much financial uncertainty that they were unsure how long they would be able to remain open.

Why This Matters for New Prekindergarteners and Elementary Schoolers

As the COVID-19 pandemic began to impact the United States in March of 2020, schools and child care facilities abruptly closed their doors or significantly limited capacity. Even as some classrooms reopened throughout the summer and fall of last year, school for many children remained virtual and only recently reopened for in-person instruction more than a year later.

These disruptions caused significant enrollment declines in public schools, with the vast majority of dips concentrated at pre-K and kindergarten. A representative survey of 100 school districts conducted by NPR found that the average district saw a decline in kindergarten enrollment of 16 percent when official counts were taken for the 2020-21 school year last October. A subsequent study by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) confirmed these trends for pre-K programs, finding that participation in pre-K declined from the pre-pandemic level of 71 percent to just 54 percent in the fall of 2020. In-person enrollment, according to the NIEER study, dipped most sharply for low-income children, as just 14 percent of children from the lowest-income families were enrolled in in-person pre-K programs, compared to 42 percent of all other children.

Parents have cited a range of reasons for holding off on enrolling their children in pre-K and kindergarten, many not wanting their child’s first school experience to be tainted by disruptions of the pandemic. Concerningly, there may have been significant undercounting of the enrollment declines of the past year, as researchers estimated that 400,000 fewer children and youth experiencing homelessness were identified by schools last year, even as housing instability and joblessness claims reached historic highs.

Sharp enrollment declines in the early years have complicated school district planning efforts, and are leading many to predict a possible ‘kindergarten bubble’ in the 2021-22 school year. Especially in states without mandatory kindergarten requirements or in others with loose age restrictions for early grades, kindergarten classrooms may be much larger than usual and a proportion of first graders could enter having had no formal education in the past 18 months or more. Aggregate enrollment declines in pre-K, kindergarten, and other early grades in 2020 will likely have substantial, lasting impacts on child development and wellbeing, but also on the structures and systems in place to support young learners.

Effective and Supportive ECE Transitions are an Important Lever

Our youngest learners, their families, and their educators will feel the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic for years to come. For many, especially among Black, Indigenous, and people of color and those living in low-income communities, the year has left long-lasting damage. At the same time, many families are stronger and more connected, and parents are engaged in their children’s learning in new and deeper ways than before.

As decision-makers look forward and plan for the next several school years, supportive and effective transitions from early childhood programs into kindergarten and the early grades will be crucial to begin to address these issues. Policy is needed at the state and local level to strengthen systems that prioritize this kind of work. Without leadership, vision, supportive policy, and careful planning, transition work is often overlooked or neglected and left to discrete activities leading up to the start of a new school year.

In order to ensure a seamless transition for children, families, and educators, state and local officials must cooperate to establish permanent, effective, and supportive transition policies and practices that recognize this as a year-long process that includes collaboration across early childhood settings and elementary schools. They must also align what children and families experience and how they experience it, as well as continuous improvement efforts.

COVID-19 provides us with an opportunity to reimagine and recommit to strengthening transitions between early childhood and K-12 systems. It is now up to states and local communities to make the transformations that are needed and sustain and build on them for the long-term. See New America’s and EducationCounsel’s new toolkit, out today, for our recommendations on how to do it.

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