PODCAST: Coronavirus threatens to exacerbate inequalities in early learning

March 17, 2020

As schools and childcare programs across the country close their doors as part of efforts to slow the spread of coronavirus, young children in disenfranchised communities are losing access to critical supports for learning and development.

In a new podcast, Soojin Oh Park, an assistant professor in early childhood and family studies at the University of Washington College of Education, discusses the repercussions of the coronavirus pandemic on early learners, how to ensure continuity of learning for children in marginalized communities, and what can be done to develop more resilient early learning systems for vulnerable children and families.

Park notes that teaching and learning, especially in the first years of life, are highly relational and reciprocal, which makes it a challenge to replicate and enact foundational early learning experiences online.

“Most of learning during these years really happens through interactive back and forth social interactions, through play with peers and with caregiving adults,” Park said. “And school closures, I'm afraid, will severely disrupt this critical developmental process, particularly for our youngest learners in disenfranchised communities.”

If school and early learning programs remain close for extended periods, Park noted a number of approaches that could be helpful in ensuring the continuity of learning for children from marginalized communities.

“Some of the universal approaches can be providing access to video tutorials, digital library and online learning materials that can support parents to engage in enriching back-and-forth interactions around learning at home,” Park said. “I think early learning professionals — if they are able to work remotely from home — can curate and share learning activity packs or toolboxes that can either be shipped home to families. Or [they can] create YouTube channels, or schedule virtual circle times with families and their children to log in to discuss books that children can read together.”

In addition, Park said targeting resources — such as unemployment benefits, a moratorium on evictions and utility payments, and mortgage deferrals — to mitigate the economic and psychological costs of the outbreak for low-income parents will substantially benefit children as well.

Park also noted steps taken by other countries during the coronavirus pandemic. In South Korea, for example, vulnerable families were identified and provided masks and sanitizers as well as 12 hours of coverage for childcare services for infants and toddlers every day so that parents could continue working.

Looking to the future, Park noted the importance of robust investments in high quality, equitable birth-to-five systems where all families can afford to enroll their children.

“To be able to do that one of the most effective and systematic ways to ensure a high quality accessible program is by focusing on promoting the well being of caregiving adults,” Park said. “So one urgent priority in that realm is increasing the compensation for the early learning workforce who are barely making livable wages.”

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