The future of our world depends on the ability of the current generation to foster the well-being of the next. Our global future prosperity and security is at risk when we fail to build a strong mental and social foundation of today’s children (The Science of Early Childhood Development, 2007).
Early Childhood is a critical period for social, mental and emotional development (Workman and Jessen- Howard, 2020; McKenzie, 2015). Schools are essential for learning, social activity, and human connection (UNESCO, 2020a). At the height of the pandemic in April 2020, 192 countries had shut schools, leaving 1.6 billion students at home. Of these, 51 countries are yet to reopen schools. Currently, 463 million children are unable to access remote learning facilities, further hampering access to education (UNICEF, 2020a). This report investigates the impact of school closures on early childhood and concludes with recommendations to cope with the current situation.
The case studies below highlight the varying impacts of school closures on early childhood in different geographical regions.
In the United States, childcare tuition is the largest or second largest expense for many households, costing more than rent or mortgage in some cases. Ironically, early childhood teachers are among the lowest paid. In an industry that operates on tight budgets (Workman, 2018), the pandemic has been catastrophic for small or independent businesses focused on early childhood education which are struggling to stay afloat (Workman, Jessen-Howard, 2020).
“The lack of public investment is hampering operations and 18% of the facilities are expected to close permanently as the pandemic progresses”
Approximately half of the early childhood care facilities have closed during the pandemic. 63% programs are running on less than 80% enrolment, as the parents of some children have become unemployed or are uncomfortable sending their children to public facilities. Additional costs for sanitation supplies, regular deep-cleaning and cleaning personnel are too large for such centres to keep up with. The lack of public investment is hampering operations and 18% of the facilities are expected to close permanently as the pandemic progresses (NAEYC, 2020).
In an attempt to reopen preschools, some states have adopted a priority-based system to bring children back. Children with special education needs followed by those who need assistance with English will be the first to be called back. This model is crucial for parents to resume work, and in doing so, aid the country’s economic recovery (Fuller, 2020). However, while childcare services are essential to facilitate this, the sector remains one of the hardest hit in the USA, owing to the high costs (Workman, Jessen-Howard, 2020).
The pandemic has caused 22 million children in South Asia to miss out on early childhood education (UNICEF, 2020b). This is especially problematic in places like India.
“Good foundations for learning in pre-primary education facilities are imperative for better student performance in primary schools”
Prior to the pandemic, studies conducted in India revealed that young children entered primary school with readiness levels well below global expectations. Hence, good foundations for learning in pre-primary education facilities are imperative for better student performance in primary schools (UNICEF, 2020c).
However, since the lockdown in March, early childhood education centres for those in need have been shut down and courtyard shelters that provided early childhood learning facilities remain closed. There is limited access to distance learning. This is resulting in young children staying at home and being unable to receive the necessary cognitive and social-emotional stimulation from adults in their households.
“Child labour has increased greatly for the first time in 20 years, nullifying previous progress made towards erasing it”
It is also possible that the current crisis could catalyse intergenerational cycles of poverty in the region (UNICEF, 2020c). Increasing poverty levels due to the pandemic have accelerated the already serious problem of child labour. Seen as a key means of survival for families facing poverty, children are being compelled to beg or seek any available work for sustenance. This is common in both South Asia and Latin America (Pandey, 2020). Child labour has increased greatly for the first time in 20 years, nullifying previous progress made towards erasing it (UNICEF, 2020d).
Latin America’s stark existing inequalities are predicted to leave its people reeling from similarly highly unequal impacts of the pandemic (Ferreira, Schoch, 2020). More than 95% of the children enrolled are out of school, with about 90% of early childhood canters, pre-primary, and primary schools indefinitely closed. The greatest risk is that vulnerable children could permanently drop out and opt to work in order to support their families. Furthermore, the limited access to hygiene tools and technology in the region prevents schools from maintaining the required cleanliness levels (UNICEF, 2020e). In addition, online classes are unfeasible given the poor technological infrastructure (ibid).
Furthermore, nine out of ten children between the ages of three to four are confronted with challenging situations including emotional abuse, domestic violence, and failure to attain an early education. Isolation measures imposed due to the pandemic mean that children are at an even greater risk of abuse and violence. Moreover, child nutrition levels are affected as children are missing school meals that cannot be compensated for especially in poor households (Kaiser, 2020).
“Prudent action is needed to mitigate the intergenerational poverty that may result if early education issues continue to remain largely unaddressed.”
These case studies highlight how the pandemic is hindering valuable social, cognitive, and learning processes for children globally. Prudent action is needed to mitigate the intergenerational poverty that may result if early education issues continue to remain largely unaddressed.
Communities and governments can act on this by considering the following recommendations:
- Neighbourhood-level centres should be created where children can access facilities for learning online or at the centre while ensuring the recommended hygiene levels are maintained.
- In areas with limited technology, CBO- and NGO-assigned tutors should promote early education via traditional methods on a community level whilst practising strict COVID-19 mitigation measures.
- Regular campaigns and community-based informants should be actively used to ensure children return to school when suitable in order to discourage child labour.
- Households in areas prone to violence should have access to helplines to obtain assistance.
- A basic, non-technological toolkit should be created for parents or caregivers to promote early learning within households. Certain initiatives such as tutoring from parents at home with activity and picture books may be used to bridge the gap provided these resources are made easily accessible. (Chitranshi, 2020). Incentives from governments should also be included to encourage widespread use.
“The early education sector is in urgent need of attention both during the pandemic and afterwards, as investing in the health and education of today’s children will be crucial in shaping tomorrow’s citizens.”
Interrupted learning, unpreparedness of parents and teachers for home schooling, social isolation, and the inability to measure the quality and validity of the learning experience provided by alternate modes compromise the human capital of the future (UNESCO, 2020b). The early education sector is in urgent need of attention both during the pandemic and afterwards, as investing in the health and education of today’s children will be crucial in shaping tomorrow’s citizens.
By Samia Khan
A contributor and member of the Public Health Pathways team
27 October 2020