ASUGSVvirtualmeeting.jpgTOP, left to right: Myra Jones-Taylor, Chief Policy Officer, Zero to Three; Isabelle Hau, Partner, Imaginable Futures; John King, President/CEO, Ed Trust, 10th U.S. Secretary of EducationBOTTOM, left to right: Walter Gilliam, Professor at The Child Study Center and Director of the Edward Zigler Center in Child Development and Social Policy, Yale University; Marquita Davis, Deputy Director of Early Learning, Gates Foundation; Tommy Sheridan, Deputy Director, National Head Start Association

Well before the COVID-19 pandemic, the early childhood education field in the United States grappled with how to equitably nurture the development of our littlest learners. Entrenched disparities across race and income level made the quest for equity an essential pursuit—but not yet a collective endeavor. While the pandemic has exacerbated existing inequality, it also represents a rare opportunity—if we choose to seize it.

Early learning has long deserved urgent attention from policymakers and education innovators, but now it needs emergency action and investment. From past research, we know that more than 50% of children from low-income backgrounds are not fully prepared to enter kindergarten and, especially concerning right now, we also know that crises that disrupt early care and learning widen these gaps. Hurricane Katrina, for instance, caused widening gaps between children of different socio-economic and racial backgrounds.

From BC to AD: Investing in Innovative Solutions that Help Children Today and Tomorrow

Every year, GSV convenes ASU GSV, one of the largest conferences on the future of learning. On April 8, GSV held a virtual summit to share insights on how early learning can move from the inequities of the past, BC (“Before COVID-19”), to a more equitable future AD (“After Disease”).

Many working parents now find their once-dual identities converging, often in inharmonious ways: parents who try to balance remote work and child care, parents in essential jobs who struggle to find care for their children so that they can care for all of us, and the millions of other parents who have lost their jobs and are finding it difficult to access government relief.

As Myra Jones-Taylor, Chief Policy Officer at Zero To Three said well, “What families have experienced with COVID-19 is like an earthquake: a sudden, unexpected episode, that disrupts everyone without prejudice. But sometimes an earthquake is accompanied by a tsunami that spreads across the ocean and disproportionately impacts those that can't make it to higher ground – for this crisis that means black and brown families and our most overburdened and under-resourced families.”

For these reasons, the COVID-19 pandemic requires us to rebuild a childcare and early childhood education system that works for everyone. Here, from that ASU GSV session, are a few solutions to do just that.

This crisis has exposed every vulnerability of our system. Inequitable outcomes are a result of inequitable inputs. We are not here by accident. And we will not arrive at a more equitable place by accident, either.
Walter Gilliam, Yale University Child Study Center Professor and Director of the Edward Zigler Center on Child Development and Social Policy
Solutions for immediate relief:
  • Expand access to quality, free, and curated learning resources: Education innovators like Tinkergarten, Khan Academy Kids and Sesame Workshop have recalibrated their learning tools for home-based learning, developing new activities that can help parents provide quality learning solutions at home with a focus on creativity and play, and provided schedules and peer support for time-strapped parents and educators to more easily implement daily learning plans. Common Sense Media created Wide Open School, a free platform curated from leading children’s education content, such as PBS Kids, National Geographic, Khan Academy, Noggin, and Sesame Workshop and many more, in partnership with the National Head Start Association.
  • Bridge the digital divide: 15% of all children, especially children of color and in low-incomes households, have limited or no access to the internet or digital technology/devices for learning. Public and private investment in making technology and devices available to children in need is necessary to ensure high quality early education resources reach all children and families.
  • Draw on big data to identify geographic and demographic priorities: In partnership with Child Care Aware of America, Yale University professors Walter Gilliam and Eli Finchel and their colleagues harnessed the power of big data to assess where essential workers most need access to child care. Local, state, and national policymakers can use their interactive map to make informed decisions on where to send child care resources to support the essential workers who must work to keep us safe and healthy during the pandemic.
  • Make it easier for working parents and essential workers to find child care: Affordable and reliable child care in the United States is famously hard to come by, especially for women and low-wage workers, while child care providers, who are disproportionately women of color, are among the lowest paid in the workforce. Meanwhile, many essential workers, such as grocery store clerks and custodians, are also parents, working hard to help us despite low pay and limited access to affordable child care and paid sick days. Winnie, an online platform that has helped 4 million parents find day care and free school, has launched an emergency child care database to help essential workers and others find child care while schools and many child care centers are closed.
Investments for the long-term:
  • Invest in Resiliency and Mental Health: The widespread closure of schools and early care facilities has left too many children with increased exposure to neglect, stress and abuse and without a safe and supportive learning environment. Children can overcome the trauma of these disruptions, but only if they have adequate mental and emotional support from caring adults. Investments in children, early childhood educators’, and families’ mental health and resilience are critical. We are inspired by the emphasis on Adverse Childhood Experiences and mental well-being within the Head Start network, as well as by the work of such innovators as Turnaround for Children and ParentPowered’s trauma-informed care that utilizes text messages to families.
  • Use reliable research to inform more equitable policies: State and national data from EdTrust, Zero to Three, and others focused on equity can help policymakers and advocates identify solutions to eliminate disparities across race, ethnicity, income, and geography. The 2020 Census and getting an accurate count in our country also is critical for driving future public resource allocation.
  • Rebuild a quality childcare system anchored in dignity: Our system of care in the United States has pockets of excellence, such as Head Start and Early Head Start. It also has many flaws, including low compensation for providers, high costs for parents, disparities in availability and quality, and overall mixed outcomes for children. Rather than emerge from this current crisis and revert to an old imperfect system, we should leapfrog into the future we want to see. This will take more than the relatively meager $3.5 billion allocated for childcare in the most recent relief package (the CARES Act). We know that every dollar spent will bring a return on investment many times over, as Nobel Prize winning American economist James Heckman and others have demonstrated. That’s why a wide array of 500 child advocates have rallied behind a minimum $50 billion request for childcare in future relief packages.
  • Support parents as agents of love: As more than half of two-parent families now include two full-time working parents, our society needs to adapt to support parents. This starts with better family leave policies that allow for the foundational adult/child attachment in the earliest days of life. The United States is the only country of 41 OECD nations without a national family leave policy. This needs to change.

Our immediate future will rely on an economic recovery supported by a well-functioning childcare system – one that lets families go back to work. In the long-term, our future depends on a thriving citizenry, with the kind of attributes best developed in the early years of life – attributes like creativity, critical thinking, complex problem-solving, emotional intelligence or cognitive flexibility.

At Imaginable Futures, we believe that, for each and every child to thrive, we need a functioning childcare system and a high quality early learning ecosystem that prioritizes equity, resiliency, dignity and love, and celebrates educators and families. To get there, it will take private sector and philanthropic leadership and innovation working alongside elected officials on both side of the partisan divide. We don’t lack good ideas for positive change. We just have to act on them.

You can listen to the replay and see the full agenda and list of speakers for the April 8, 2020 GSV session at: