COVID-19 Impact on Education

Preschoolers Fare Worse Than Kindergarteners in School Closures

The educational experience of kindergarteners was dramatically different from the one received by preschoolers after the March 2020 school shutdown took place. While the majority of preschoolers ages three to five listened to stories, did learning apps or games or performed physical activities "less than once a week," according to a recent survey, the opposite was true for kindergartners, most of whom did the same every day or "several times each week."

Fig. 1: The percentage reporting frequency of remote learning activities forchildren ages 3-5 not yet in kindergarten whose programs had closed their in-person operations (representing 427 parent respondents).Source: "Young Children’s Home Learning and Preschool Participation ExperiencesDuring the Pandemic" from the National Institute for Early Education Research

Fig. 1: The percentage reporting frequency of remote learning activities forchildren ages 3-5 not yet in kindergarten whose programs had closed their in-person operations (representing 427 parent respondents).Source: "Young Children’s Home Learning and Preschool Participation ExperiencesDuring the Pandemic" from the National Institute for Early Education Research

Most parents said their preschoolers did receive some remote educational support services when preschool classrooms closed, but support often was minimal. Within two months less than half of preschool children continued to receive remote learning support from their programs. The sudden disappearance of learning support, the researchers estimated, would result in the loss of two to four months of classroom learning time, as well as declines in some parent-child activities, which could worsen the learning loss.

The survey was undertaken by the National Institute for Early Education Research among a nationally representative sample of 1,001 parents of children age three to five. The online survey was conducted between May 22 and June 5, 2020. The results on educational experiences were based on 54 children in kindergarten and 427 children in preschool. Housed at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, NIEER supports early childhood education policy and practice through independent, objective research.

Fig 2: The percentage reporting frequency of remote support for learning fromkindergarten programs after closure (representing 54 parent respondents). Source: "Young Children’s Home Learning and Preschool Participation ExperiencesDuring the Pandemic" from the National Institute for Early Education Research

Fig 2: The percentage reporting frequency of remote support for learning fromkindergarten programs after closure (representing 54 parent respondents). Source: "Young Children’s Home Learning and Preschool Participation ExperiencesDuring the Pandemic" from the National Institute for Early Education Research

The latest survey asked a series of questions to measure the extent to which parents were engaged in home learning activities in the previous week with their preschool-age children. About four in five parents said they'd read to their child three or more times in the past week. Three in five reported singing songs and teaching letters, words or numbers three or more times in that same period. A third (37 percent) said they'd worked on arts and crafts with the child three or more times. And nearly half (47 percent) reported telling stories three or more times. According to a report on the results, parents rarely said they had "never" engaged in those kinds of activities.

Parents were asked how many minutes on the previous day their child had engaged in various activities. The kids spent about one and a half hours per day on each of the following activities:

  • Playing indoors (97 minutes);

  • Playing outdoors (88 minutes); and

  • Watching TV or video (93 minutes).

Children read for about 31 minutes and listened to or played music about 28 minutes.

The time allocations varied by child and family characteristics. For example, White children spent more time playing indoors compared to Black and Hispanic children. They spent more time playing outdoors compared to Black children, while Black children spent more time reading ebooks and using learning programs or apps than did White or Hispanic children.

"Neither parents nor preschools were prepared for the sudden transition forced on us by the pandemic," said Steve Barnett, NIEER's senior co-director and a study author, in a statement. "Perhaps 10 percent of preschool children received a robust replacement for in-person preschool attendance."

Study co-author Kwanghee Jung, associate director for data management and statistics at NIEER, pointed out that the slide could have been predicted, due to parental stresses from the pandemic shutdown, including working from home, travel restrictions, lost income and difficulties providing for basic needs. The pressures have made it difficult for parents to continue their usual home supports for young children's learning much less expand their efforts to replace preschool classroom activities, she noted.

Barnett advised that in coming days preschools "should either reopen or prepare a much stronger response to remote support for young children's learning and development."

The preschool shutdowns appeared to worsen educational inequalities, the researchers wrote. Home learning environments have proven more unequal than preschools, and public preschool programs provided their greatest benefits to the most disadvantaged children. For young children with disabilities, the loss was even greater, with almost a quarter receiving no supports whatsoever after classrooms closed.

While provision of services for young children with disabilities poses serious challenges, Barnett asserted, that didn't excuse the failure to provide services.

"The best way to address this inequality is to reopen schools for our youngest children, who learn best through hands-on activities and engaging with responsive adults and other children," he said. "The challenge of protecting the health of our young children--and their family members and teachers--even if much less than for older children and adults should not be underestimated, and preschools will need funding to mitigate risks. However, the costs and difficulties of providing even partially effective supports for preschool learners with classrooms closed must not be underestimated either."

This research was funded with support from Overdeck Family Foundation and the PNC Foundation; the PNC Foundation also provided support for disseminating the research.

The research reports, including a technical report, special report and methodology, are openly available on the NIEER website.

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