The coronavirus epidemic wiped away a decade of progress in raising preschool attendance, affecting more than a quarter-million children while also reducing state funding and making it practically hard for operators to achieve the best standards.
While child care and preschool operators, teachers, and parents have long lamented the pandemic’s impact on the early education system in the United States – which is already beset by access, cost, and quality issues – a new assessment of state-funded care for 3- and 4-year-olds highlights the system’s vulnerability.
“The epidemic brought to light and worsened long-standing issues with enrollment, quality, and finance,” said Steven Barnett, senior co-director and founder of the National Institute for Early Education Research.
“Enrollment in state-funded preschool fell for the first time in at least 20 years, and the pandemic wiped out a decade of progress in preschool enrollment,” he said. “Health hazards, restricted classrooms, and remote classes wreaked havoc on an already weak system.”
The institute’s 2021 State of Preschool study, released Tuesday, details the impact of the pandemic on early education programs offered during the 2020-2021 school year, the first to be completely disrupted by COVID-19.
The research also shows that state-funded preschool enrollment fell for the first time in 20 years, erasing a decade of increase and resulting in a decrease of roughly 20%, or 300,000 children, in a single year. Children from low-income families and racial and ethnic minorities suffered the most detrimental consequences.
Prior to the pandemic, six states – Florida, Iowa, Oklahoma, Vermont, West Virginia, and Wisconsin – as well as Washington, D.C., were serving at least 70% of 4-year-olds, with another seven states on the verge of doing so. Only Washington, which has a universal prekindergarten program as part of its public school system, has kept those high enrollment percentages, with 84 percent of 4-year-olds and 64 percent of 3-year-olds enrolled.
In total, 26 states cut expenditure on early childhood education by $254 million over the previous year. Nine states were able to raise preschool spending by more than $10 million because of $440 million in federal COVID-19 funding, topped by Maryland with a $84 million increase and New Jersey with a $78 million increase.
“Despite the pandemic, states performed an outstanding job supporting their programs, thanks in large part to federal pandemic relief money, which played a significant role in maintaining funding levels,” Barnett said. “Unfortunately, financing for high-quality, full-day programs remains significantly short of what is required.”
Budget constraints, staffing shortages, and the general health hazards associated with managing early education programs hampered optimal practices for children, according to the research, which meant the vast majority of providers were providing poor quality and developmentally inappropriate activities.
In a conference call with reporters, Health and Human Services Secretary Xavier Becerra stated, “Many of us know how the epidemic set us back.” “In order to move forward, we must learn from what the pandemic has taught us.”
He stated, “We know things aren’t where they should be.” “Now is the time for us to move.”
Even before the pandemic, the industry was struggling with a multi-faceted issue: it’s out of reach for most families. In Washington, D.C., for example, average child care costs around $25,000 per year, and workers are paid far too little for the extent of labor, degrees, and certifications required for employment. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the average hourly wage of a child care worker in the nation’s capital is $18. s
Workers are being wooed away by companies like Amazon, who are paying hourly salaries substantially beyond what the average child care worker now makes, as well as other advantages like health care and tuition help, yet the workforce is still 12 percent below pre-pandemic levels. The problem was so severe in Washington, D.C., that city officials recently authorized a plan to offer child care staff one-time bonuses ranging from $10,000 to $14,000.
Further complicating the situation, because children under the age of five are not yet eligible for vaccinations, child care centers are still being forced to close for days at a time as personnel pass through quarantines and isolations.
The industry has suffered over the last three years: According to a recent analysis released this month by Child Care Aware of America, approximately 16,000 child care centers have permanently shuttered across 37 states since the epidemic began, representing a 9 percent decrease in licensed child care providers.
Women’s capacity to sustain employment during the epidemic has been aided by the sector’s instability. According to a Census Bureau research, about 3.5 million moms with school-aged children lost their jobs, took a leave of absence, or quit the labor market entirely in the first few months of the pandemic. One year later, 1.3 million people were still unemployed.
While women have reclaimed lost jobs, there is still a worrying gender imbalance.
According to Gusto’s most recent analysis of data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey, which has been analyzing quit rates by gender since January 2020, the gender gap in quit rates widened in January 2022, with 4.1 percent of women quitting compared to 3.4 percent of men. This was the first rise since August of 2021.
Early education advocates plan to persuade members of Congress after they return from recess this week to resuscitate the $400 billion child care and the pre-kindergarten proposal included in the $1.75 trillion Build Back Better package.
However, Congress’ ability to deliver is not to its advantage.
While Democrats are working to separate one or two major policy recommendations from the Build Back Better proposal and pass them as stand-alone bills, they are still arguing within their own caucus over which policies to advance. Even though increasing child care financing has traditionally been a bipartisan issue, particularly at the state and local level, Republicans in Congress are adamant about not supporting a significant new national project.
Republicans would rather see more money put into the long-running Child Care Development Block Grant, a federal program that pays states for child care subsidies for low-income families with children under the age of 13. It presently receives $5.8 billion each year in funding.
Any substantial federal investment would be notable for a service that has long been regarded as a scourge on the country’s educational system. When it comes to early education – both child care and pre-kindergarten – the United States pales in comparison to the amenities and access that other developed countries offer to families.
According to a survey released last year by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the United States placed fourth to last in the percentage of children 3-5 years old enrolled in early childhood education out of 41 developed nations. Only Costa Rica, Switzerland, Turkey, and Saudi Arabia are behind the United States, which has a 65 percent enrolment rate. More than half of the countries studied enroll upwards of 90% of their 3-5-year-old youngsters.
If Congress is unable to pass a comprehensive package, as proposed in the Build Back Better proposal, a small matching grants program might considerably speed up efforts, according to the research. For example, a five-year commitment of just $1 billion in the first year, followed by another $1 billion each year until the fifth year, may result in an increase of 1 million children enrolled in high-quality programs.
The paper highlights the detrimental impact of the pandemic on early education programs in the United States, estimating that even if states recover from pandemic-related losses and resume prior enrollment growth rates, states will enroll just 40% of 4-year-olds and 8% of 3-year-olds in 10 years.
On a conference call with reporters, Education Secretary Miguel Cardona said, “Preschool should be offered to everyone.” “But it isn’t right now.”
“Even if we totally recovered,” Cardona added, “we’re not where we need to be.” “Just going back to where we were is unacceptable.”