The long-running pandemic has disrupted every facet of education. But the early childhood sector has been particularly devastated. Over the past 16 months, young children have experienced learning setbacks and fewer social experiences, while their educators have endured degraded working conditions, stress from job uncertainty and mental health declines.
Much has been reported, written, observed and said about these impacts—particularly by researchers. But to families, educators and early childhood leaders, that information can be convoluted, complex and overwhelming. In a crisis situation that has been fluid and demanding, costly and time-consuming, few of those who stand to benefit most from the studies and surveys conducted on the impact of the pandemic on the child care sector actually have the capacity to scour them, search for solutions and reflect on the readings.
In that spirit, a team of early childhood experts at the University of Michigan and the Urban Institute decided to do the sifting and sorting for others in their field. They synthesized the findings from 76 high-quality studies of the early care and education sector during the pandemic, including those conducted at the national, state and local levels.
What they learned largely reinforce the narratives that are already circulating about early childhood education during the pandemic: It’s clear that young children have suffered, perhaps with long-lasting effects, and that those who work with them find themselves facing unprecedented mental health and financial hardships. Yet to aggregate these findings and make sense of them, all in one place, provides a service to not only early childhood educators and families of young learners, but to policymakers, leaders and other people in positions of power, the authors argue.
“What was really remarkable here is just how consistent the evidence is, even though the effects are localized,” says Christina Weiland, associate professor and faculty co-director of the Education Policy Initiative at the University of Michigan, who co-authored the report, titled “Historic Crisis, Historic Opportunity.” “A lot of this is not very surprising. What’s new here is just being systematic.”
The Impact on Children
One near-universal finding of the studies that Weiland and her colleagues evaluated was the sharp decline in program enrollment during the pandemic, persisting well beyond the initial weeks and months of the crisis.
In many cases, lower enrollment likely translated to missed learning opportunities for children, lost income for child care program operators and less work for educators.