New data shows that the COVID-19 pandemic wreaked havoc on the cognitive development of preschool-aged children in Washington, particularly those of color and in low-income communities.
According to the Department of Children, Youth and Families, a 2019 study found that 79 percent of children completing developmental screenings were at proper cognitive levels for their age. In a similar study in 2022, just 62 percent of such children were found to be developmentally on-level.
In dealing with children suffering from academic and social-emotional losses, the difficulty level for those providing child care and early learning services has skyrocketed.
“As you can imagine, the kids we’re seeing now are children who, in the first three years of their life, really weren’t in much of a community with anyone and had almost no ability to practice social skills,” said Rekah Strong, the CEO at Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, a key provider of early learning in Southwest Washington.
Strong and other leaders in Washington early learning programs say the data doesn’t come as a surprise. They say it is a confirmation of the trends they’ve been observing in children and their parents since programs ramped up after the height of the pandemic.
“It’s validating,” Strong said. “But (the data) maybe isn’t for us, rather for external folks who are looking in at our system and don’t fully understand the complexities for what it means to be an underfunded program with unfunded mandates.”
Funding and staffing issues pile on
Employees working for Head Start and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program have reported seeing more students that are unable to regulate emotions, often leading to violent outbursts that have harmed teachers and even other children.
“Staff told us that they have one child who damaged their mother’s car with their kicking. Another child, at 4 years old, wrote a suicide note for parents to find. Teachers report wearing clothing such as denim that is firm enough to withstand children’s bites,” wrote leaders from the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs in a March 2 release.
In response, leaders like Strong have repeatedly advocated for increased funding to provide early learning facilities with consistent, qualified staffing to best respond to students’ increased needs.
Among these requests from the state is a 40 percent increase in the rate of per-student funding for half-day and full-day students. Funding is allocated in per student “slots,” which refers to the number of individual spaces in early learning sites. As of 2023, a three-hour half-day slot costs $8,237 per year; a 5½- to 6½-hour school day slot costs $11,309 per year and a 10-hour working day slot costs $17,656 per year.
These rates, providers say, are not enough to service the number of students in need.
“We’ve been operating at a deficit. Now you have people going into classrooms with higher (student-teacher) ratios,” Strong said. “We need a different kind of investment into staff and wages, we need to fund them the way they deserve to be.”
Early learning providers have reported in recent months that inadequate funding and staffing has forced them to shut down child care centers in Clark County.
Overall, Strong and the Early Childhood Education and Assistance Program estimates there are as many as 4,000 students eligible for their services in Southwest Washington. Additional details on how families can determine whether they’re eligible to enroll their child in the program is available on the Department for Youth, Children and Families website at https://www.dcyf.wa.gov/services/earlylearning-childcare/eceap-headstart.
“There is an interdependence with what we provide, everyone should be watching to make sure we’re able to provide these services or else there will be a business loss here in Clark County,” Strong said. “This is not just a early learning issue, this is a community issue.”