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Opinion
The following is presented as part of The Columbian’s Opinion content, which offers a point of view in order to provoke thought and debate of civic issues. Opinions represent the viewpoint of the author. Unsigned editorials represent the consensus opinion of The Columbian’s editorial board, which operates independently of the news department.
 

In Our View: Preschoolers’ learning loss concern for us all

The Columbian
Published: March 26, 2023, 6:03am

In assessing the long-term impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, Rekah Strong effectively sums up the issues facing children, parents and child care providers.

“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,” Strong told The Columbian.

As the CEO at Educational Opportunities for Children and Families, a provider of early learning in Southwest Washington, Strong has a front-step view of what is going on in our community. And her unsurprising conclusion should motivate efforts to boost early childhood education — both academically and socially.

Meanwhile, as experts continue to research the effects of a pandemic that is still with us but has largely slipped into afterthought status, it is essential to appraise the widespread impact that prolonged isolation had on children of all ages. The pandemic and resulting lockdowns created an unprecedented situation that will have lifelong effects.

For preschool-aged children, a survey from the state Department of Children, Youth and Families provides some eye-opening insight. A 2019 study, before the pandemic, found that 79 percent of children who participated in screenings were at a proper cognitive level for their age; a similar study in 2022 found that 62 percent were at an appropriate level.

Social interaction is essential for cognitive development, and children of all ages were deprived of that interaction for months or years following the onset of the pandemic in March 2020.

For young children, that has been compounded by a shortage of day care openings as facilities struggle to find consistent, qualified workers. That has broad implications. With businesses across all industries reporting a labor shortage, affordable, accessible day care is essential for the economy to reach its potential by motivating more people to enter the workforce. But it also is essential for the social development of children.

The struggles facing those children were predictable but remain shocking. In a March 2 report, leaders of the Washington State Association of Head Start and Early Childhood Education and Assistance Programs wrote: “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.”

Behavioral issues, however, are not limited to preschool children. A release last year from the National Center for Education Statistics was headlined, “More than 80 Percent of U.S. Public Schools Report Pandemic Has Negatively Impacted Student Behavior and Socio-Emotional Development.”

Teachers can offer endless stories of students’ inability to effectively and peaceably interact with adults or with fellow students. As one Clark County teacher said, “It’s almost like they forgot how to engage with fellow humans and follow rules.”

Parents and teachers have endured much of the burden brought about by pandemic-related behavioral issues. But we all will pay the long-term costs of anti-social behavior. Lawmakers should recognize that early education is a worthwhile investment in the future.

As Strong said: “There is an interdependence with what we provide. Everyone should be watching to make sure we’re able to provide these services … This is not just a early learning issue, this is a community issue.”

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