Early childhood education programs across the country are struggling with an array of common challenges due to the COVID-19 crisis, including maintaining connections with children and families during school closures, supporting their early childhood education (ECE) workforce, and planning for school reopenings.
The Northeast & Islands region has been particularly hard hit by this pandemic. New York has suffered devastating losses, and the U.S. Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico were still repairing infrastructure that was damaged by Hurricanes Irma and Maria when the coronavirus pandemic struck. To better understand how COVID-19 has impacted ECE in our region, we recently met with members of the REL Northeast & Islands Early Childhood Workforce Development Research Alliance who shared their struggles and successes in supporting the ECE workforce, families, and children birth to age 5 during this crisis.
With preschool programs closed throughout the country, our alliance members, who hold a range of positions—from directing Head Start programs to overseeing state ECE initiatives—have continued in earnest to support the ECE workforce in engaging families. As with all U.S. schools, the ECE centers they oversee have pivoted to using online learning platforms. However, connecting virtually with children and families presents many challenges.
For one, many areas of our region have poor or no internet connectivity. In the U.S. Virgin Islands, many families do not have access to the Internet. In other places, including New York City, many households have only one computer, which is often used by a parent working from home. On top of these equity concerns, Sherry Cleary, University Dean of Early Childhood Initiatives for the City University in New York, touched on a larger issue: “Online distance learning is not acceptable for young children,” she said. “Small children need contact, they need emotional and social supports, they need to manipulate something and be able to hold on to it.”
To overcome these obstacles, alliance members and their colleagues have employed a variety of innovative resources to engage families. New York has distributed hands-on materials for children and supported parents in engaging their children with the materials. This has been particularly valuable to New York's large migrant population, who have few possessions due to their need to move seasonally for work in the farming industry. In addition, many of the childcare centers Cleary supports are calling parents daily to discuss how they are doing and what they are worried about. “If we take care of the parents, we take care of the children,” Cleary said.
In the U.S. Virgin Islands, the Community Foundation of the Virgin Islands (CFVI) has disseminated resiliency education materials that were developed in response to the hurricanes to help children work through trauma. One thousand sets, including coloring books and a parent's guide, were passed out to parents with their Head Start food delivery. They also launched Ready4K, a text message-based app that targets parents of children birth through grade 4, providing them with three messages a week about their child: a fact, a tip, and a growth message. CFVI is promoting the app on social media and the radio.
In Vermont, the Head Start Association offers mental health consultation and home visiting services through a telehealth platform. Head Start programs in Maine asked their teachers to choose an online platform that allows them to maintain a relationship with children and families and to ensure that their basic needs are met. Some teachers have produced teaching videos for parents to use with their children; others hold regular virtual meet togethers with families.
The status of the ECE workforce varies greatly by region and provider type. Nationally, Head Start programs have received funding by the CARES Act during this crisis, keeping their programs and workforce intact. Vermont implemented a unique financial stabilization program at the start of the pandemic, allowing childcare centers to apply for financial assistance if they are in imminent risk of failure. There is great concern over how many will reopen and if the workforce will return if they do. In addition, states have been grappling with how to support the current and future workforce's education needs. Alliance members discussed efforts to support the ECE workforce in their states.
Maine Department of Education holds weekly virtual meetings for every department, including early childhood, to support content specialists and keep them up to date about what is happening at the state level. Rhode Island and Vermont are using virtual learning platforms to meet the professional development needs of their ECE workforce. And in New York, the NY Early Childhood Professional Development Institute launched a blog for the workforce that offers resources, teacher selfcare tips, and remote learning strategies.
As states plan to reopen their ECE centers, they face challenges that range from maintaining the health and safety of their children, families, and workforce, to ensuring there are enough workers to meet families' ECE needs. Alliance members shared the strategies they and their colleagues are using to address these issues.
In New York, the NY Early Childhood Professional Development Institute created the ECE Employment Network that matches job seekers with employers. They also conducted a survey, sent to 20,000 ECE providers, to learn about their concerns. The results of the survey, which yielded 3,000 responses over a couple of weeks, are being analyzed and will help inform reopening plans.
In Maine, Barbara Moody, Child and Family Services Director for Midcoast Maine Community Action, reports that her state's professional development network, Maine Roads to Quality, provided guidelines for reopening schools served under the Office of Children and Families. In addition, they are allowing extra time for ECE programs to meet licensing education requirements, complete background checks for new teachers, and comply with teacher-student ratios.
Although Head Start programs will begin to open this summer, they will not be fully functional until the fall. “We have Plans A, B, C, and D [for September], because we don't know what the circumstances will be,” Moody said. If the current CDC recommendations stand, she explained that her program will only be allowed 10 children per class, which would mean 20 groups of children for 14 classrooms. “We hope to be able to do as much as we can for families,” she said. “We don't want to have less than full-time preschool, but in some cases we may have to because we just don't have the space.”
Learn more about the REL Northeast & Islands Early Childhood Workforce Development Research Alliance.