New policy brief reviews evidence of the effects of the COVID-19 crisis on young children's learning and ECE programs, highlighting inequities, and points to solutions

June 18, 2021

How has COVID-19 impacted young children's educational experiences and learning outcomes? How has the pandemic impacted early childhood education (ECE) programs and the ECE workforce? A new report from the Education Policy Initiative (EPI) at the Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy at the University of Michigan, the Urban Institute, and early childhood experts at nine other institutions sheds light on those two questions and concludes that while the pandemic affected all families and all ECE settings, it exposed already-present inequities in the system. These findings are particularly important because the early childhood period - defined as ages 0-8 - are foundational years with long term implications for children’s development. The early childhood educator workforce, which already has notoriously high turnover, suffered even more instability during the pandemic, hindering quality of early learning programs.  Due to longstanding inequities in public investments, family child care homes and child care centers suffered greater impacts than Head Start programs and public schools. 

The study concludes with some policy recommendations that can alleviate the current crisis and set the stage for a more equitable future for ECE.

An event highlighting the report will be held Monday, June 21, 2021 at 12:00 PM Eastern Time Panelists include two of the study’s authors, Christina Weiland from the Ford School and the School of Education and Erica Greenberg from Urban Institute, as well as Miriam Calderon, Deputy Assistant Secretary for Early Learning at the U.S. Department of Education, and Philip Fisher, Philip H. Knight Chair and Professor of Psychology at the University of Oregon. Registration for the event can be found here.

The report, “Historic Crisis, Historic Opportunity: Using Evidence to Mitigate the Effects of the COVID-19 Crisis on Young Children and Early Care and Education Program,” is the result of a systematic review and synthesis of the 76 most high-quality studies of the issue, spanning 16 national studies, 45 studies in 31 states, and 15 local studies.

“The crisis has exposed inequities across the ECE system. The things that keep us safe in a pandemic (like distancing) are not as conducive for learning for young children and the effects of the crisis were not born equally by families.  The crisis also added immense challenges and stress for early educators - including fears about getting sick, increased financial stress, and the additional work to enhance safety in in-person settings and to adapt to remote learning,” says Weiland, EPI faculty co-director.  

The aim of the report is to provide a broader, more comprehensive look at the pandemic’s impact than any single report can provide. Each individual report provides a useful snapshot of impacts of the COVID-19 crisis at a single point in time, and oftentimes for one slice of the ECE landscape (e.g., just child care centers). By reviewing the studies together as part of a systematic synthesis, the authors were  able to identify key themes that emerge across these contexts.

The summary regarding the childrens’ experiences and outcomes shows:

  • Some of the necessary changes that were made to young children's in-person learning environments to enhance safety were not conducive to academic and socio-emotional skill development. 
  • Effects of the crisis have not been born equally. Children of color, dual language learners, and children from families with low incomes appear to have been more negatively affected. Young children with special needs may not have been identified and may not have gotten the services they needed to thrive.
  • Remote/hybrid learning was challenging for children, families, and teachers and resulted in significantly less learning time and lower-quality instruction. 
  • Young children’s learning and development suffered setbacks during the crisis.

The effects of the pandemic on early care and education settings show:

  • The public health emergency highlighted pre-existing inequalities across early childhood program types. Child care centers and family child care homes experienced serious financial challenges that made it difficult to operate. In contrast, public schools and Head Start programs experienced more stable funding and were not as affected.
  • Early stabilization efforts left substantial unmet needs, particularly in child care centers and in family child care homes. Pandemic recovery continues to be uneven, with tremendous need for new funding and professional supports.
  • The pandemic increased the complexity of early educators’ jobs across all program types, in ways that negatively impacted teachers’ mental health. Teachers reported high levels of stress and depressive symptoms, as well as concerns that these challenges would affect their ability to provide high-quality experiences for young children. 
  • More challenging working conditions, financial concerns, and mental health struggles may have contributed to programs’ challenges recruiting and retaining teachers. Data from fall 2020 and spring 2021 suggest that teachers’ commitment to both their jobs and ECE in general has decreased, and providers are struggling to hire qualified teachers. 

The report also points to the historic opportunity afforded by the Biden administration’s American Rescue Plan signed into law in March 2021 (the largest public investment in early care and education in U.S. history), as well as potential new funding from the administration’s American Jobs Plan and American Families Plan.

The report concludes with evidence-based, equity-centered solutions for supporting early care and education settings “to inform how state and local agencies will spend new federal funds.”

Among the policy recommendations:  

  • Accelerate children’s learning. Young children will be entering ECE programs and elementary schools in the fall with a wider range of skills than teachers are used to. Disruptions over the last 15 months call for us to act on the best science of teaching and learning for young children. This science includes implementing effective curriculum, coaching, and professional development for teachers; making the most of the next several summers; tutoring as early as kindergarten; and hiring assistant teachers to ensure children have time in small groups and experience instruction that meets them where they are.
  • Support the whole child. Young children are resilient, but educators have expressed concerns about their socio-emotional development in particular. As children return to ECE, educators can place extra weight on socio-emotional development and consider trauma-informed approaches. Further, in anticipation of a wide range of children’s behaviors and pandemic experiences, training and policy changes across ECE can help prepare for and prohibit the use of harsh discipline. Together, these changes can help accelerate learning and address longstanding racial disparities.
  • Partner with families. Online and virtual ECE posed real challenges for children, families, and early educators. One silver lining, however, was the expanded use of technology to support closer home-school connections Continuing virtual options to connect with families will strengthen home-school connections just as offering free, technology-based learning supports will strengthen teaching and learning well beyond the pandemic.
  • Increase support to the workforce. ECE, and especially child care, has long been underfunded and undervalued. To honor the contributions of essential workers and help aid recovery, public investments must be sufficient to pay all ECE workers a living wage and establish pay parity with K-12 for educators with matching qualifications. Additional healthcare subsidies for ECE workers can ensure fair compensation and support physical and mental wellbeing. If vaccine boosters are necessary, prioritizing early educators alongside K-12 teachers will serve the ECE workforce and lessen future disruptions to teaching and learning.
  • Accelerate the creation of a coherent ECE system. Publicly funded ECE programs fared better during the crisis than private-pay programs. Expanding public funding can strengthen ECE in the short and long term, especially for programs serving infants and toddlers. Promising child care policy solutions include: shared business services alliances, expanded use of contracts, and modifications to subsidy reimbursement systems. Leaders can also anticipate and stave off future cuts to Head Start and public schools as federal relief expires. Investing in data systems and analytic capacity can support an equitable recovery along with ongoing continuous quality improvement.