Preschool Education is Changing After COVID-19 Caused Enrollment to Drop
For preschool education, the pluses of the pandemic are hard to find. Enrollment dropped, some schools closed for good, and measures of kindergarten preparedness tailed off. But Ohio fared better than some states and took steps that could make it easier not only to recover but to move ahead.
The pre-pandemic sound of SPARK (Supporting Partnerships to Assure Ready Kids) was one of preschoolers in their homes, playing with a purpose and with the active engagement of their parents, guardians and a group known as parent-partners.
They discovered and perfected colors and counting and other keys to kindergarten. And over nearly two decades, SPARK had prepared thousands of 3- and 4-year-olds. Armed with data that showed steady progress, the Early Childhood Resource Center expanded the program from Stark County to nearly a dozen communities from East Cleveland to Columbus to Cincinnati.
Akron was next. With backing from the GAR Foundation, in February 2020, Summit County Program Supervisor Danielle Bunner had big recruiting goals.
“I said I want to have 75 by May and finish out and get another 25 to have our full capacity by August. I think we had 30 when COVID hit,” she said.
That put those plans largely on hold and slashed enrollment elsewhere. Canton dropped from 400 to 200 preschoolers. SPARK Ohio Director Mary Brady says early on, parent-partners delivered food, sanitary supplies and a human connection.
“You know we really needed to be nimble and flexible and provide grace for a lot of people,” she said.
But being nimble also meant developing virtual options for a preschool program built on personal relationships.
Parent-partner La Kecia Neal learned a rule from Shakespeare: Grab their attention early.
She recruited a cast of hand puppets.
“I have a Clifford and he’ll sneak up and their eyes get real big, just to get their attention, or I’ll have something silly on,” Neal said. That includes a hairstyle that changes shape and color a lot, and the kids notice when Miss La Kecia shows up.
But Neal says early childhood development is woven into social and emotional interaction, so after the disruption of the early COVID-19 days, Neal began arranging in-person but socially distanced visits at libraries, in backyards and parks.
Some parents, and some programs such as the one at Nationwide Hospital in Columbus, remain on-line. But most parents are like Aseel Qaqish, who opted to return to visits in her Akron home for her son Jayden. She says it provides a single-mindedness of purpose, for children and parents.
“When you are leaving it virtual, it’s so easy for the parent to go and do other stuff and get distracted with the phone, with the house, with everything else. But in person, it’s just commitment,” Qaqish said.
But the program is different these days and not just in its format. In fact, in some ways SPARK has expanded. It offers tutoring to older siblings of its preschoolers. And visits with the preschoolers have increased from one or two a month to as many as four.
Enrollment is recovering. Canton is back to nearly full capacity.
And in Akron, Baby Sunar has just been hired as SPARK’s third parent-partner. She’s among the thousands of Nepali refugees settled in the Akron area and says the pandemic has been especially hard for families already isolated by language and culture.
She recalls one little girl who arrived at kindergarten not knowing a word of English.
“It was so hard,” she said.
In contrast, she says, SPARK helped get her son though the isolation while schools were shut down. And “if my community knows about this SPARK program, at least my people will get a chance to introduce with the language, introduce with the people, so that they will be a little bit comfortable.”
SPARK has adapted in other ways. Kent State professor Joanne Caniglia, a Dominican nun, has developed a virtual version of SPARK’s family math night.
Math concepts like proportions and sequences are woven in with stories. And the stories are woven in with kits hand-delivered to families. For one lesson, the kits included paper mittens to arrange by color on a clothes line and the real thing knitted by Caniglia’s fellow nuns.
Brady says virtual adaptations of things like the math nights recognize the pandemic has stretched many parents and that going online works better for them than getting to a meeting. So attendance is higher than at similar in-person sessions pre-pandemic.
The Resource Center is also partnering with Canton schools on a new central preschool center, just a few blocks from its offices and playground. And Brady is working now on how to offer a summer program.
Executive Director Scott Hasselman says for most young children, face-to-face learning is irreplaceable. But he notes there was some long-term investment through the pandemic that may not have happened otherwise.
The center trains early childhood educators, and when day care centers shut down last spring, many used federal stimulus dollars to keep staff employed. That meant extra time for training, and last year, the resource center worked with more than 17,000 of them. It also increased coaching sessions with day care centers to help them improve child care quality.
But the resource center itself is a lot quieter these days. The pandemic shut down its library and parent and teacher classrooms.
Overall, Hasselman says Ohio saw fewer day care centers close than other states. And enrollment at public preschools, where parents were more likely to be essential workers, stayed fairly steady.
Still, he says, preliminary data documents lost learning.
“Kids lost ground, a lot of ground, across the board, but what you see is the kids that were behind before are now further behind,” Hasselman said.
Ohio’s formal kindergarten readiness scores won’t be out until fall. Hasselman says he hopes no one is content to wait until then to figure out what preschoolers have lost. And he says everyone will have to stay nimble to catch up.