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Youngest children could be losing out during pandemic | COMMENTARY

What a difference a virus makes. Few of us could have imagined at the start of 2020 the staggering disruption — and immense loss — that the COVID-19 pandemic would cause.

Each of us has had to come to terms with this new reality in his or her own way, but the youngest among us have been affected in ways that will likely only be evident years from now. They are unable to understand or give voice to the disruption to their daily routines, the loss of social connections and emotional attachments so critical to their emotional and intellectual formation. A legitimate concern is how they will accommodate the disruption to their lives and what longer-term implications it will have on their mental and emotional health.

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Decades of research confirm that the most important developmental period in a person’s life is from birth to age 5, when 90% of brain development occurs. Those enrolled in robust learning environments risk losing ground in this period of social distancing and at a stage in their young lives when learning and development happen exponentially.

It’s not only a cliché but a truism that children are resilient. But each and every day that a child’s mind is not being stimulated with established routines is precious time and opportunity lost that, in most cases, cannot be regained. The best learning environments promote lifelong behaviors that demonstrate curiosity, empathy, kindness, respect and self-confidence, as well as a desire for continued learning. Certified teachers spend countless hours preparing to care for others’ children — honing skills that will equip them to nurture and educate children from disparate backgrounds and circumstances. They create activities and experiences that promote a child’s progress across all domains of learning.

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Not all parents are natural teachers, or possess the skills to advance the intellectual growth of their children in ways that accredited child care schools are equipped to provide. The pandemic, however, has required those parents not classified as “essential employees” or first responders, to maintain a sense of routine and structured learning that their children have become accustomed to in their child care environments. Many are also now dealing with the stress of sudden job loss and financial upheaval, as well as persistent unpredictability about the future.

Children of our state face particular obstacles to their overall health and well-being. The 30th edition of the KIDS DATA Book, researched and published by the Annie E. Casey Foundation in 2019, reveals that Maryland children rank 14th in the nation in “overall child well-being” — as measured by children in poverty, children whose parents lack secure employment, young children (ages 3 and 4) not in a preschool environment and child and teen deaths per 100,000 population, among other critical measurements. The message is clear. We can ill-afford to lose any ground in providing the care that our children require, beginning in their earliest stages of development.

While we remain confident that Celebree will weather this hardship, the reality is that many smaller child care providers will not be in a position to welcome their children back once we return to something resembling normal. The Maryland Early Childcare Advisory Council reports that of the 7,800 child care providers pre-COVID-19, there are now just roughly 3,700 maintaining operations and which have been serving only children of “essential employees.” Even with Gov. Larry Hogan’s recent directive allowing providers to now accept children of other employees returning to work, the capacity directive of no more than 10 per classroom remains. A clear mismatch of demand and supply.

Moreover, the National Association for Education of Young Children confirms that: “Up to a third [child care providers] in some states won’t survive a closure of any period — another third won’t survive a closure of more than two weeks.” This will inevitably create issues of capacity for working parents, potentially increasing child care costs due to limited supply and greater demand and compromising the care and development of displaced children.

As governors begin to reopen their states, the youngest among us and their needs must be our highest priority. Federal and state support for child care providers must be regarded as essential to economic recovery efforts. Childcare providers must be allowed to accommodate additional children in proportion to the increasing number of parents allowed to return to work. It’s a fact that working mothers and fathers unable to place their young children in quality child care schools bear an even greater risk of losing their job.

In time, we’ll inevitably resume our lives and interactions. Even as we assure our children that all will be well, and engage their young minds as best we can in these circumstances, we would do well to demonstrate in our policies and funding priorities how utterly essential each and every one of them is to both our present and future.

Richard O. Huffman (rhuffman@celebree.com) is founder, president and CEO of Celebree School.

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