Jared Polis, the governor of Colorado, reads to a young student.

Could This Pandemic Transform the Way We Invest in Care and Education Programs for Our Youngest Generation?

October 16, 2020

In a field already characterized by significant inequities, the COVID-19 pandemic is a long-lasting disruptive event that is exacerbating crises in early childhood care and education (ECE). As some community-based, private, and public ECE programs go remote, as others open their doors, and as still others furlough teachers or close doors due to reliance on family tuition, experts are seeing greater solidarity among working parents and guardians, businesses, and U.S. policymakers who are giving ECE programs and services elevated attention. 

Researchers have shown that high-quality ECE programs can improve children’s learning and social-emotional development trajectories, engaging them during the most sensitive window of brain development. And the pandemic has reinforced how ECE provides an invaluable child care service for working families. ECE is both care and education and helps children and their families thrive. COVID-19 has shined a light on the economic implications of the ECE system in the United States.

“Public perception and awareness of the problems in ECE are changing due to the pandemic,” said Dr. Kristie Kauerz, associate clinical professor and director of the National P-3 Center at CU Denver. “Families suddenly are saying ‘Wait a minute, I can’t go to work if I don’t have these supports,’ or ‘Oh my gosh, I’m trying to work and be my child’s teacher. And these preschool teachers need to make more money because it’s hard to instruct these little kids.’ What’s yet to be determined is how this all plays out in terms of how we leverage this new public attention to change policy strategies. And I don’t know what that’s going to look like yet.” 

Young children are feeling the pandemic the hardest. While school districts have offered distance learning options for K–12 students, it is especially difficult to provide online platforms for preschoolers (ages 3–5), children with special needs, and those who live in poverty. “Everyone’s just really struggling with the best way to provide education services to young children right now,” said Kauerz. “Online learning is really hard with preschoolers and kindergarteners.” 

“Prior to Covid-19, ECE existed on the margins and was a very fragile system. Nowhere was this more visible than in terms of pay for early childhood teachers, which is abominably low,” said Dr. Diana Schaack, assistant professor in SEHD. “Because ECE that serves children birth to five is largely family tuition driven and a fee-for-service industry, in Colorado alone, almost a quarter of ECE teachers who were making low wages to begin with have been furloughed or laid off due to temporary closures, reduced class sizes, and families disenrolling children. A recent national study showed that about 60% of ECE programs were on the brink of permanent closure due to the pandemic. The programs that are durable and have been able to survive are the ones that are publicly funded. Families have always seen the value of ECE. Businesses are now really starting to understand the value of ECE with the pandemic making it crystal clear that employees require ECE services to fully be available. Maybe, just maybe, out of this crisis, a much deeper appreciation will evolve that then translates into greater public investment for ECE that also allows ECE teachers to make a fair wage.”

Colorado Governor’s ECE Priorities

Pictured in the hero image, Jared Polis, the governor of Colorado, has gone to great lengths to contain and mitigate the pandemic and to support young children and their teachers. Increasing statewide early childhood capacity and workforce development are priority projects on the governor’s “Bold Four” initiatives. He and his administration are setting out to increase preschool capacity in the state by funding an additional 20,000 half-day preschool slots by June 30, 2023. Steps in the plan include increasing the number of qualified ECE teachers; improving ECE access, especially in ECE deserts; and opening more public preschool programs.

“Given the enormity of the state’s budgetary priorities—including transportation, corrections, Medicaid, and wildfires—we are so proud to have a governor who lays a stake in the ground that early childhood and the ECE workforce are central to his administration’s success. It speaks volumes about his commitment and his values in this work,” said Kauerz. 

“He’s been a historic champion of ECE,” said Schaack. “Within his first several months in office, he had full-day K passed in Colorado, which we hadn’t been able to do until he got into office. That has just been amazing. It is my hope that he can keep moving the ECE policy agenda forward in the midst of a really difficult time in our state and in our state’s budget.” 

Rebecca Kantor, Dean of SEHD, is contributing to the state’s ECE goals. The governor recently named her as a commissioner on his Early Childhood Leadership Commission, a federally authorized state advisory council for early childhood. Kantor provides statewide leadership, subject matter expertise, and champions best and promising ECE practices throughout the state.