Early childhood education and care in the face of coronavirus

Child care worker wearing face mask tidying up toys in play room

By Elizabeth A. Shuey

Analyst, OECD Directorate for Education and Skills

As people around the world distance from one another in the face of coronavirus (COVID-19), young children continue to require close contact with others to meet their basic needs and to ensure their positive development and well-being. Parents are making difficult decisions everyday about how to balance work and their own stress around the pandemic with their children’s care and education. While other levels of education have adopted virtual programming to offer some continuity for students’ learning, early childhood education and care (ECEC) cannot be replaced in the same ways.

Young children learn through back-and-forth interactions with others and need careful supervision as they develop their gross motor skills and explore their surroundings. Not only are such interactions and supervision difficult or impossible to provide through online platforms, leading health organisations recommend that young children spend little or no time each day in front of a screen. These recommendations are often based on the assumption that time with screens is a passive activity rather than interactive and personal, such as video calls with familiar adults. Although research shows that young children learn best through real-life interactions rather than through two-dimensional on-screen experiences, many questions remain unanswered about how technology can be used effectively with very young children.

The ECEC workforce is confronting these challenges, in many places becoming an essential sector to provide ongoing services for children of other essential workers. In other cases, the ECEC sector is using innovative strategies to support families, such as delivering play materials to vulnerable families or having staff make video calls to interact with children and support parents. Still, the pressures of closing ECEC settings are affecting this workforce, leaving many unemployed and with a growing risk that some settings will never be able to re-open.

A sector already struggling to serve all families

The risk that the supply of ECEC will decrease as a result of the pandemic puts additional pressure on a sector that already struggles to serve all families. Data from TALIS Starting Strong 2018, the first international survey of ECEC staff and leaders, show that before the pandemic, waiting lists to enrol in ECEC were common. In the four countries that collected data on ECEC settings serving children under age 3 (Denmark, Germany, Israel and Norway), 40% or more of leaders indicate they maintain a waiting list. In Germany and Norway, waiting lists are more common in urban areas than in rural ones although ECEC settings in urban areas already serve a larger proportion of children under age 3. This shortage of ECEC for very young children will complicate parents’ ability to return to work, particularly as many ECEC settings are further reducing the number of children served to mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

A shortage of ECEC for very young children will complicate parents’ ability to return to work, particularly as many ECEC settings are further reducing the number of children served to mitigate the risk of transmitting COVID-19.

In addition to a shortage of ECEC settings for children under age 3, leaders in Denmark, Germany and Israel report that shortages of staff limit their effectiveness as ECEC leaders. These shortages have implications for staff, who report that extra duties due to absent colleagues or having too many children in their classroom/playroom are sources of stress in their work. Reducing group sizes by recruiting more staff is indicated as a top spending priority if the budget was increased by 74% of staff in Norway, 78% in Germany and 84% in Israel.

ECEC staff are committed to the sector

Still, ECEC staff are committed to the sector and express a very high level of satisfaction with their work. Across the four countries, 96-98% of centre-based staff agree or strongly agree that they “enjoy working at this ECEC centre”. Through the pandemic, this commitment to their work is evident among staff who have found innovative ways to stay in touch with young children, even without formal frameworks in place to require ongoing engagement. For example, during centre closures, ECEC staff have recorded themselves reading familiar books for children to watch or hosted virtual dance parties to encourage gross motor skills. Yet, less than one-third of staff in the four participating countries is satisfied with their salaries and relatively small percentages of staff feel valued by society: from 37% in Germany to 58% in Norway.

Where to next for ECEC?

Increasingly, governments recognise the importance of high quality ECEC for supporting children’s learning, development and well-being and for promoting equity among children from different socio-economic backgrounds. The COVID-19 crisis highlights the role of ECEC staff in supporting children as well as the importance of the ECEC sector as a support for parents’ employment, but also underscores its fragility. Particularly in places where ECEC settings rely heavily on private funding, the pandemic is calling into question the ability of ECEC settings and staff to resume their roles as restrictions are lifted.

Children from socio-economically disadvantaged families are already less likely than their more advantaged peers to participate in high quality ECEC. If ECEC shortages become more pronounced as a result of the current crisis, these children will likely be the first to miss out, losing opportunities to socialise, explore and learn about the world outside their families. As the world seeks new ways to move forward with the reality of COVID-19, more attention to the ways technology can work for young children and for the ECEC workforce is needed, in addition to strategies for keeping in-person interactions at the core of ECEC services. Finally, recognition of the invaluable work of ECEC staff and a commitment to supporting this sector is imperative.

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