Texas Tech University

Pandemic Highlights Importance of Giving Children an Early Head Start

Glenys Young

August 21, 2020

Students who were performing ahead of their classmates when schools went remote are likely still ahead, and those who were behind are probably further behind.

As the fall semester starts, schools across the country are welcoming students and assessing just how much of what students learned last year was lost over the summer. Known as the "summer slide," it happens every year. But in a year when summer break effectively lasted five months, educators are especially concerned.

Teachers and children in the Early Head Start program participate in story time. Throughout the spring and summer, story time was conducted virtually to keep the children engaged and learning even while the center's physical location was closed.

Some experts suggest students may have lost as much as a full year's worth of education since the coronavirus pandemic forced closures nationwide in March. Students from lower income families are typically among the hardest hit by the summer slide and, likewise, the transition to online learning throughout the spring was more difficult for families without the necessary technology for it: those that don't have multiple computers for children and parents learning and working from home, those without home internet, etc.

While current education has many uncertainties, one thing is sure: students who were performing ahead of their classmates when schools went remote are likely still ahead. And those who were behind are probably further behind now.

The Center for Early Head Start provides child care for children ages 6 weeks to 3 years old.

The current situation puts a special emphasis on the importance of programs that give children from low-income families a chance to get ahead of the curve before they start school so later shortfalls may affect them less. Texas Tech University's Center for Early Head Start (CEHS), an initiative of the Department of Human Development and Family Studies in the College of Human Sciences, is designed to enhance the physical, social, emotional and intellectual growth and development of participating children. Furthermore, it responds to the families' needs by promoting positive interactions between adults and children and supporting caregivers in their parenting role.

"The thought that children may have lost a year or more in educational opportunities should give us all a cold feeling in the pits of our stomachs," said Stephanie Shine, executive director of the CEHS. "But much worse is the knowledge that some children have lost many more opportunities than others, particularly children who are already vulnerable – children whose families have lower incomes, whose parents work on the frontlines, Black and Hispanic children, children with special needs or health conditions and children with fewer supports at home. This is why Head Start and Early Head Start programs have put so much focus on continuing our programs and supporting parents who engage with young children."

Children in Early Head Start practice using language, engage in relationships and express emotions.

The research-based program provides child care, parenting education and family support to children ages 6 weeks to 3 years old. It currently serves 96 children and their families who qualify by income, and all services – including hot meals, infant formula and diapers – are provided free of charge to support infant and toddler development and family well-being.

"If Early Head Start programs were important before the pandemic, they are even more important now," Shine said. "We typically have eight children in a classroom, four children per teacher, exactly so children have a good opportunity and safe place to practice using language, engaging in relationships and expressing emotions, which will put them in a good position for everything else they will need to learn."

While children were home during the spring and summer, teachers made toys and learning materials for them.

Over the spring and summer, the CEHS transitioned to providing services to families at home. Teachers worked with a small group of parents, providing ideas for activities for their children at home, but teachers also went a step further – they actually made toys and learning materials and distributed activity bags to families, along with infant formula, baby food, diapers and other supplies the families needed. The teachers stayed in touch with families weekly to hear their concerns and celebrate their children's milestones.

"Young children are members of families that are affected in multiple ways by the pandemic, whether through loss of jobs and income, loss of extended family visits or increased worry and stress at home," Shine emphasized. "At the CEHS, we've been getting good reports from many parents, many of whom sent photos of their children enjoying the materials we sent home. But we know this is not the whole picture. Our families are clearly not the same as they were before; some have lost jobs, some have been exposed to the virus or become ill, some are struggling to get what they need, some are very fearful for the future."

Many children were happy to get back to the Center for Early Head Start when it reopened on Monday.

To make a return to in-person services this fall as safe and comforting as possible, CEHS administrators enacted dozens of changes in classroom arrangements, staffing, toys, outside time, meal time and child drop-off and pick-up procedures. The intense focus on planning, cleaning, training and practicing new protocols paid off with a smooth reopening on Monday (Aug. 17).

"We have been planning for quite a long time on how to re-imagine everything we do," Shine said. "But we also needed to understand how young children would experience these changes."

Program director Denise Stovall takes parents on a tour of the Center for Early Head Start.

One concern in the planning stages was how the children would react to the teachers' masks. In addition to sending home photos of the teachers with and without masks to reassure the little ones, teachers also have a photo of themselves, smiling and unmasked, on their name tags.

After so long away, some of the children were still nervous on the first day back – but others weren't.

"It was wonderful to see toddlers run to their teachers even though they hadn't seen them in person for the last five months," said program director Denise Stovall. "The children didn't seem fazed by the masks. We realized the weekly calls and virtual story times throughout the spring and summer really made a difference and had a big impact on children's relationships with their teachers."

It was a beautiful reminder for Shine of the hope for the future children embody.

"Despite the challenges of the pandemic, at least regarding very young children, I have faith in their resilience," Shine said. "If we can help families do well, access resources and feel supported, then young children can look to their parents and thrive."