Cheryse Singleton-Nobles knows her 2-year-old son is regressing.
While the toddler is getting the hang of colors, numbers and shapes, she says, “he’s back to the stage of ‘me, me, me.’” He doesn’t want to share anymore. He struggles to follow a routine and gets distracted by all his toys.
Singleton-Nobles, 47, attributes this backtracking to the COVID-19 pandemic, which recently forced her son’s free Chicago preschool to close its campus.
That preschool, an early-learning center that belongs to a national network of Head Start-funded programs called Educare, shut its doors in the spring but managed to reopen at limited capacity in the fall. The center had to revert to distance learning again in mid-November amid a surge in COVID-19 infection rates.
Now, her son – like countless other young children across the country – is sliding in his social-emotional skills. And those losses could be devastating for these children's long-term success. Preschool years are among the most formative of a child’s life. A student who starts kindergarten without preschool is more likely to repeat a grade, require special-education services or drop out.
“Unfortunately, for children, the impact of this pandemic will be felt for years,” said Dimitri Christakis, a pediatrician who directs the Seattle Children’s Hospital Center for Child Health, Behavior and Development.
Many kids were already behind
For America’s low-income children, high-quality opportunities to prepare for kindergarten were already in short supply before the pandemic hit. Nationally, child care was out of reach for many Americans, costing as much as $9,600 on average last year, an analysis by Child Care Aware of America found.
Head Start, a federal early-childhood education program designated for low-income families, served just 36% of eligible 3- to 5-year-olds. Early Head Start reaches even fewer families, enrolling only 11% of eligible infants and toddlers.
As a result, as many as half of low-income children already were starting kindergarten without being ready for it. A child is considered “kindergarten ready” if, for example, she speaks in complete sentences most of the time, can identify at least five colors and knows her first and last name.
Most brain development occurs before age 5 – the brain triples in size in the first two years of life – which is why a child's learning experiences during that window are so predictive of her success later on. “Children are born wired to learn,” Christakis said. “Early-learning experiences lay the foundations of their minds for the rest of their lives.”