"The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted both the fragility and importance of the early education and care sector in the United States, with serious, widespread consequences and unprecedented changes for children and families across the globe," said Stephanie Jones, Gerald S. Lesser Professor of Early Childhood Development at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. "This large-scale study, launched in 2017, is ongoing to learn more about the early education landscape in the Commonwealth and the quality of care settings for three- and four-year-olds. As states began to shut down in March, the study became a mechanism by which to better understand the experiences of families and early educators during the pandemic."
In the provider survey, early educators shared how the COVID-19 pandemic affected the day-to-day operations of their programs, including in-person operations and staff compensation, and the extent to which these early educators used public resources and social safety net programs to alleviate the financial impact of the pandemic. The survey also explored how early educators interacted remotely with children and families, and how the pandemic affected educators' personal wellbeing.
The parent survey examined the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on families, including parents' overall stress and anxiety as well as specific sources of stress and disruption. It also addressed families' needs and supports during this uncertain time, especially with regard to children's education and learning while schools were closed.
Findings from the Early Education Provider Survey
According to the early childhood educator survey, across all types of care, family child care providers were hit the hardest in economic terms—87% of family child care providers said their income had been affected, whereas 35% or less of educators and caregivers in the other provider types said their incomes had changed. Unsurprisingly, levels of financial stress were disproportionately higher among educators and caregivers in family child care compared to those in Head Start and public school prekindergarten programs, and family child care providers were most likely to report looking for secondary employment.
In addition, early educators across all provider types reported their mental and physical health was affected. Educators also reported concerns that their work with young children would pose a risk to their wellbeing. Although most educators reported having access to improved hygiene supports, many reported not having access to necessary mental health supports.
Even in the face of adverse economic and health impacts, educators reported going above and beyond and doing the work they do best. Approximately 85% of educators reported engaging in some form of online instruction. Many educators also reported communicating with parents through phone, text messaging, emails, mail, and social media, and about half of educators reported providing physical materials to children and families. Other remote activities included socially distanced visits and food/diaper delivery.
Findings from the Parent Survey
The parent survey was administered during the broader [email protected] study's third year, when children were between five- and seven-years-old and were in Kindergarten and first grade. Of the parents who participated in the survey, all reported experiencing substantial stress and disruption. Sixty-six percent of parents agreed or strongly agreed they experienced stress due to the COVID-19 pandemic, 73% worried about their family's health, and 69% worried about the impact of the pandemic on their family's future. Further, the hierarchy of stressors varied, from families worrying about the stress of working at home, to basic needs such as food and housing, to paying bills and unemployment. While all families reported some degree of stress, low-income families reported the highest levels of stress and disruption.
Several other key themes emerged from the findings around family strain:
Changes in family welfare and wellbeing. Nearly all respondents reported major disruptions to their family routines, with 99% of children's schools closed and 75% of parents working from home. Strikingly, nearly half (42%) reported a family member in the household who lost a job or experienced reduced employment.
Technology use and online schooling. Almost all (96%) children were using technology to connect with their teachers and school. While 96% of parents said schools/teachers provided children with schoolwork, only 72% of parents had been in direct touch with the teacher to discuss their child's progress. Lower-income families reported the highest levels of school and teacher outreach (87% reported being in touch with the teacher to discuss their child's progress), including the provision of learning technology equipment (61%).
Screen time at home. The majority (90%) of parents said their children's total screen time increased during the pandemic, with the following breakdown:
95% reported an increase in time spent using technology for learning activities
64% reported an increase in time spent watching TV shows or movies
37% reported an increase in time spent playing video games and 47% reported an increase in time spent watching videos on the computer
67% reported an increase in time spent communicating with friends
Overall, these disruptions and changes in daily life for families associated with the COVID-19 pandemic are likely to influence child wellbeing and learning loss and the study reveals some children are showing signs of strain themselves (e.g., regression, behavioral challenges, sleep disruption), signaling the need for more support.
Sample The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative partnered with Abt Associates, a global research and consulting firm with offices in Cambridge, Massachusetts, to conduct the surveys. The sample of nearly 700 early educators included in the early education provider survey report was recruited from the full sample of community-based center, family child care, Head Start, and public school prekindergarten providers that participated in the first two years of [email protected] The sample of nearly 1,200 parents and guardians included in the parent report were recruited from the sample of children and families that [email protected] is following over time.
About the Early Learning Study at Harvard ([email protected]) Now in its third year, [email protected] is a first-of-its-kind, large-scale, population-based study of young children's learning and care settings across the state of Massachusetts. The study's representative sample and longitudinal design enable it to address key questions facing today's policymakers and practitioners. It focuses in particular on questions about scaling effective models and practices and about the characteristics of early childhood care and education settings that are connected to children's long–term health and well-being.
About The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative at the Harvard Graduate School of Education (HGSE) promotes the knowledge, professional learning and collective action necessary to cultivate optimal early learning environments and experiences. The Saul Zaentz Early Education Initiative is supported by a $35.5 million gift from the Saul Zaentz Charitable Foundation, one of the largest gifts ever given to a university for advancing early childhood education.