Due to COVID, underserved students will suffer substantial learning loss

Due to COVID, underserved students will suffer substantial learning loss
© UC Berkeley

As the COVID-19 pandemic rages on and school doors remain shuttered for the year, the country is waking up to the reality that our students — especially young students and those in underserved communities — will suffer substantial learning loss.

As of May 6, 2020, all but two states have recommended school closures through the academic year, impacting upwards of 124,000 schools and 55 million students in kindergarten through grade 12. For younger learners, the future looks even bleaker. More and more child care centers — where most children will experience their first formal education — are collapsing.

Despite decades of research emphasizing the critical importance of child-focused education and adult-child interactions from birth to age 5, Congress has failed to provide robust and comprehensive support desperately needed in the child care community. An inadequate patchwork of funding mechanisms and severe inequities in access, therefore, persist. These endemic weaknesses combined with the impact of COVID-19 spell disaster for the sector and irreparable damage to children’s development, especially for those in underserved communities.

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We know the benefits of high-quality early education and care: a positive effect on social-emotional learning and reading and math scores both in the immediate and long-term; increased likelihood of graduating high school and obtaining additional degrees and licensures; and improved health outcomes. Access to quality early learning opportunities also has a significant impact on children from low-income families and these investments have a net positive effect on the workforce and economy.

So when a section-by-section analysis of the draft text of the HEROES Act was released last week, many in the child care community were optimistic that the desperately needed support was finally within reach in the establishment of a Child Care Stabilization Fund [p.70]. Anticipated to be appropriated to the tune of roughly $35 billion, the fund represented a significant Congressional commitment and a lifeline that may well have helped ensure the child care industry survived the pandemic, families had quality and safe spaces to leave their children as the economy reopens, and the adverse impact the pandemic’s disruption has had on early learning was mitigated.

Unfortunately, in the eleventh hour, that lifeline was eliminated from the bill and replaced with a $7 billion infusion to the Child Care and Development Block Grant (CCDBG). Though $7 billion in CCDBG funding will certainly help, it falls woefully short of the $50 billion needed, at a minimum, to sustain this industry. Absent more robust, targeted Child Care Stabilization or CCDBG funding, our nation is only delaying the inevitable — the further collapse of an essential industry that enables our nation’s economy.

Congress’s cornerstone program to help businesses, the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), is not adequately addressing the need either. As has been well-covered in the media, the PPP is capped, and many banks have favored clients in a way that has disadvantaged truly small businesses, like child care. Many child care providers lacked either the in-house legal or finance staff capable of meeting the quick turnaround necessary to win the race that other businesses enjoyed. In fact, a May report by the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) found that those in the child care industry who had applied successfully for the PPP only account for approximately one-third of the entire field.

Like other early education programs, Jumpstart pivoted quickly to provide a suite of free high-quality online activities and videos in English and Spanish and available to educators and families across the country, but we know that our youngest learners need so much more than two-dimensional engagement via a screen. For children to avoid falling even further behind and for their parents and caregivers to return to work, they will need to have access to quality child care. 

The House was so close to providing vital funding in the $35 billion range in the Child Care Stabilization Fund. A bipartisan group of 23 senators have united to advocate for more funding for child care in the next relief bill. The children, families, and employers who depend on the child care sector to teach and care for the children of the nation’s workforce now await the lifeline that almost was and still needs to be in the next relief package.

Mark Reilly is the vice president of Policy & Government Relations and Brittany Walsh is the senior manager of Policy & Government Relations of Jumpstart, a national early education nonprofit organization.