Study shows damage of pre-K learning disruptions

Preschools provided little or no effective learning and development supports after shutdown.
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Within two months of the state’s shutdown, the study found less than half of preschool children continued to receive remote learning support from their programs. Photo by iStock

A new study focusing on the education of preschoolers after providers shut down in-person instruction in March shows a number of negative consequences on early childhood learning.

A nationwide survey by the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education in New Brunswick, New Jersey, shows America’s preschools schools failed to provide 3- to 5-year-old students adequate support after shutting down in-person instruction in March due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The NIEER 2020 Preschool Learning Activities (PLA) Survey polled a nationally representative sample of 945 households with children ages 3 to 5. The online survey was conducted in English and Spanish between May 22 and June 5 and asked about preschool program participation, program-provided supports for learning when classrooms closed due to the pandemic and home learning activities.

The research was funded with support from Overdeck Family Foundation and the PNC Foundation. The PNC Foundation also provided support for disseminating the research.

Most parents reported their children received some remote educational support services when preschool classrooms closed but support often was minimal. Within two months, less than half of preschool children continued to receive remote learning support from their programs. Among those receiving support, large majorities participated less than once a week in activities provided by preschools. In addition to the loss of two to four months of classroom learning time, the survey found evidence of declines in some parent-child activities, which the study authors said could worsen to learning losses.

“Neither parents nor preschools were prepared for the sudden transition forced on us by the pandemic,” said Steve Barnett, NIEER’s senior co-director and lead study author. “Perhaps 10% of preschool children received a robust replacement for in-person preschool attendance.”

Barnett said in July it was his belief that preschools should either reopen or prepare a much stronger response to remote support for young children’s learning and development.

Study co-author Kwanghee Jung noted parents face unprecedented stresses from the pandemic shutdown, including working from home, travel restrictions, lost income and difficulties providing for basic needs. This has made it difficult for parents to continue their usual home supports for young children’s learning, much less expand their efforts to replace preschool classroom activities.

Barnett encouraged parents and educational leaders to consider the learning opportunities that already have been lost as well as future losses as the pandemic continues. Designing programs to support learning and development at home presents great challenges. In addition to adding to the demands on already stressed parents, many of whom are working, there are no real replacements for social play, which promotes many aspects of child development that contribute to success in school and life beyond school.

Continuing preschool shutdowns also appeared likely to worsen educational inequalities. Home learning environments are more unequal than preschools, and public preschool programs provide their greatest benefits to the most disadvantaged children, the study authors said. Also, most young children with disabilities in the survey experienced a loss of the services required by their Individualized Education Plans (IEPs), with almost a quarter receiving no supports after classrooms closed. Provision of services for young children with disabilities poses serious challenges, but that does not excuse failure to provide services, Barnett said.

“The challenge of protecting the health of our young children — and their family members and teachers — even if much less than for older children and adults, should not be underestimated, and preschools will need funding to mitigate risks,” he said. “However, the costs and difficulties of providing even partially effective supports for preschool learners with classrooms closed must not be underestimated either.”

Sean Welsh, PNC Bank’s regional president for West Michigan, said funding the study is part of the PNC Foundation’s 15-year, $500 million commitment to early childhood education, and he noted Barnett is on the foundation’s advisory board for its Grow Up Great initiative.

“He advises us as to where we can make investments that make the most impact, so there are a lot of reasons why it just made sense for us to partner with (Rutgers) on this,” he said.

Welsh said while it was obvious to him that preschool-age children not having an in-person learning experience will leave them unprepared for kindergarten, he said the drop in preschool participation from 61% to 8% during the period of the study was extremely concerning to him.

“It’s amazing how few kids, regardless of where they reside in the economic continuum, (were) getting quality preschool experiences,” he said.

He added the data confirms PNC Foundation’s longtime early childhood investment thesis.

“It goes with our theory that we’ve been researching for years with our investments, and that is early childhood education, getting a child ready to learn, is critical. These are tough times. There’s no doubt about it. We’ve got to balance protecting the health and the safety of the kids and the teachers themselves. But how do we also make sure that these kids are progressing so that they can reach their potential? … We have to have good data to make good policy decisions, and these are really hard policy decisions right now.”

Welsh said other than funding this study, the PNC Foundation has been advocating for better policies on the federal and state levels, as well as investing in remote learning tools such as Chromebooks for families in need.

The PNC Foundation also recently put $20,000 of a two-year grant toward providing Great Start Readiness classrooms through Kent Intermediate School District with books and educational videos that will help 824 students learn their alphabet. Additionally, the foundation in August provided a $15,000 grant to the YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids to fund child development center programming that teaches children basic skills, such as letters, numbers and colors.

The foundation’s board members throughout the country also are involved with various organizations that are working to solve these pressing issues. Welsh is chair of Talent 2025 and co-chair of the organization’s Early Childhood Working Group, and he also is involved with First Steps Kent, an organization working to ensure all children arrive at school ready to learn, which is perhaps best known for securing the Ready by Five millage to fund early childhood programs in Kent County.

“Kids are born in different homes, different economic worlds, but they all arrive into the world with the same potential,” Welsh said. “We need to make sure they have the same opportunities to take advantage of their potential.”

The full NIEER 2020 Preschool Learning Activities (PLA) Survey report is available at bit.ly/NIEERspecialreport.

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