By Kylie Marsh
Early childhood is a crucial period of development, a time when children build important social, academic and emotional foundations. Pandemic conditions, however, disrupted aspects of early childhood education at Carrboro and Chapel Hill preschools, and some worry that these disruptions may have a lasting impact.
Concerns and Adaptations
Cathy Tuttle, director of Estes Children’s Cottage in Chapel Hill, is concerned about how COVID-19 safety precautions affect their curriculum because children younger than five typically are still learning to communicate with facial expressions, body language and verbal cues.
“I know in the beginning when teachers were wearing masks, a lot of things they said to the children did not really register or come across,” Tuttle said.
Amy Kelley, director of Children’s Campus in Chapel Hill, also thinks that masking slowed young students’ speech and language development and their ability to recognize facial cues.
One workaround is to use masks that have clear panels so students can see teachers’ mouths. Kelley said the NC Department of Early Childhood Education mailed masks with windows to preschool service providers.
The CDC reports that, notwithstanding the impressions of local educators, there is little scientific evidence to date that masking, per se, impairs children’s language or emotional development.
“I think the masks are something that they just adapted to,” said Darren Council, director of Carrboro Early School. “I can’t say masks had that much of an impact on their learning.” Council also noted the benefits of using masks with windows.
“Even [for] the children who were getting speech therapy and different services, we adapted by doing certain things,” he said. “[We used] masks that were see-through or [transparent] shields so [students] could see [a teacher’s] face.”
Dr. Iheoma Iruka, a faculty fellow and research professor at the Frank Porter Graham Child Development Institute at UNC, studies educational disparities amongst minorities. She said it is important to contextualize the pandemic and its impacts on society.
“This is a global pandemic that no one was prepared for,” she said. “We also need to recognize that we live in an inequitable and bifurcated system,” she said. Families of color have suffered a greater loss of family than have their white counterparts, and children of color may not have the tools to express their feelings.
“These children may have anxiety, attachment issues or be-short tempered,” said Iruka. “Even adults may not be able to articulate their emotions.”
“What’s important is not putting the blame on children,” Iruka said. “They’re trying to process [what they are feeling].”
Uncertainty regarding long-term effects on learning
Both Council and Kelley agree that the lasting impacts of the pandemic on child development remain to be seen.
“We’ll see the impacts over the next five years,” Kelley said.
Council noted that third grade is an important milestone for measuring a child’s academic progress. A longitudinal study conducted by the Annie E. Casey Foundation found that children who struggled with literacy skills at the end of third grade were four times more likely to drop out of high school than their peers.
“We’ll know where the kids are a year or two from now, when they hit third grade,” Council said. “For now, it’s too early to tell.”
In other states and at the national level, some data do indicate that the pandemic has adversely affected student learning, though it remains to be seen whether students will catch up once normal schooling resumes. A fall 2021 statewide study in Virginia, for example, found a higher percentage of students between kindergarten and second grade were at risk for reading difficulty compared to pre-pandemic years.
Similarly, a fall 2021 study by Curriculum Associates, an educational services company, found that students in early grade levels were not performing at pre-pandemic levels in reading and math. Finally, last month, Amplify, publisher of the widely-used mCLASS literacy assessment tool, reported that more students are at risk of not learning to read than before the pandemic. In both studies, the instructional losses were particularly pronounced for Black and Latino students.
Iruka remains optimistic.
“They’re going to learn to read, but [we need to focus on] how much we’re responding to [students’] mental health [needs] and making sure they’re affirmed,” she said.
Social distancing regulations and remote instruction also pose a challenge when it comes to the kind of play-based learning that nurtures the development of social and emotional skills amongst preschool-aged students.
Leslie Rinehart used to work at Erwin Road Montessori School in Durham, until she was laid off in 2020 when enrollment dropped by half.
“There are many group activities that we can no longer do because we cannot combine classrooms due to COVID-19,” Rinehart said.
Rinehart then worked at University Presbyterian Preschool in Chapel Hill, where she noticed changes in the children’s behavior.
“We were noticing a lot of separation anxiety…and many more speech delays and social anxiety in the classroom,” she said.
Tuttle at Estes Children’s Cottage shared Rinehart’s concerns about the children’s social skills.
“Children just cannot play together and maintain 6 feet apart,” she said. “As far as we are concerned, the most critical thing for children — particularly by the time they’re three and four — is this socio-emotional type of play with each other, and you can’t do that in isolation.”
However, Carrboro Early School’s Darren Council said, “I have not seen anything that leads me to believe our children have suffered socially and developmentally. Most of these children know each other and are good around each other.”
Some children enter daycare programs when they are as young as six weeks. Council said this early socialization increases students’ social confidence and familiarity with their peers.
Another challenge preschool and child care providers have faced is deciphering and adhering to the protocols prescribed by the ChildCareStrongNC Public Health Toolkit, which was last updated March 7.
“Involving parents in programs has also been difficult if not impossible due to regulations in the toolkit,” Tuttle said. In the case of Estes Children’s Cottage, parents had to stay outside of the building for safety.
“They only come to the gate so they don’t actually get to see anything inside. The only way they can keep up with what’s going on is through photographs,” Tuttle said.
“We went two full years without ever having a case of COVID in the school,” Tuttle said, adding that frequently sanitizing toys and surfaces with diluted bleach felt tedious and unnecessary.
Iruka encourages parents and early childhood educators to take a holistic approach with students, especially those from socioeconomically disadvantaged backgrounds, to provide a strong foundation for the development of students’ academic skills.
“It comes down to how we as a culture respond to children’s social and emotional wellbeing. Everyone feels hurt and pain, and we all felt the pandemic,” she said.
“We need to be cognizant that this pandemic was felt differently by different people in different ways, and that students are attached to strong communities.”