How Did State-Funded Preschools Respond to the Pandemic? Special Report Offers a Glimpse

As any parent or educator can attest, the pandemic has touched nearly all aspects of preschool. It has reshaped policies and practices, altered the delivery and content of professional development, and shaken families’ confidence about sending their kids to school.

Many of these changes, such as waived or relaxed teacher requirements, are expected to be temporary. Others may stick around for some time. And all of them, taken together, are expected to have long-term implications on the quality of preschool programs, the number of seats available in those programs and the kindergarten readiness of children who learned remotely or experienced frequent school closures.

It has been clear for many months now that the pandemic would have a profound impact on preschool programs and preschoolers’ experiences. But how much, and at what cost, has largely been up in the air. Hoping to demystify that impact, and to get a comprehensive look at how programs and policies were reshaped over the last year, the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER) at Rutgers University has produced a special report on the topic. The report, a supplement to its annual State of Preschool Yearbook, reviews state-by-state data on COVID-19 responses, from forced closures and remote learning to enrollment, funding and workforce ramifications.

Specifically, the report examines state-funded preschool programs serving 3- and 4-year-olds. The data in the Yearbook was self-reported by state education officials and reviewed for consistency by NIEER.

First, a look at the staggering number of programs affected. In mid-March of 2020, when the COVID-19 outbreak began in the U.S., 22 states required all preschool programs to close, though most had cleared programs to reopen—with a mix of in-person and remote learning options—by the beginning of the 2020-21 school year. Another 15 states required only some programs—typically those embedded in a K-12 public school—to close, while others were allowed to remain open (as was the case in states such as Iowa and Kansas.)

Of the states that had their preschool programs close, nearly all required a remote learning replacement be offered to children. About half of all state-funded preschool programs provided learning continuity and support through other means, such as sending home written learning materials, dropping off supplies such as books or manipulatives, or sharing links to resources and videos of educators teaching a lesson. In Alabama, for example, the state encouraged its preschool programs to create distance learning resource bags to send out to families stuffed with items like toys, arts and crafts supplies, books, sensory materials and activity ideas for parents.

How Long Will Policy Changes Last?

In spring 2020, many states began to change the policies that undergird how preschools operate in an effort to comply with COVID-19 restrictions. Many waived child assessments. Some adapted their protocol on health screenings and referrals. And nearly all adjusted or forewent structured classroom observations.

Some experts worry that these adjustments will become permanent and reduce program quality.

“Obviously, [classroom observations] didn’t happen because in-person teaching wasn’t happening,” says GG Weisenfeld, assistant research professor at NIEER and author of the pandemic special report. “But often, that’s one of the methods programs use to improve quality. A lot of these supports and policies have to come back, not just get eliminated.”

Many states intend to reinstate their old policies, but there is some concern that they won’t, Weisenfeld says. During the last recession, around 2008-9, many states relaxed or adjusted their preschool requirements in order to survive, but never reversed those changes.

A perfect example, Weisenfeld says, is Georgia. Many programs, in order to reduce costs, made concessions like cutting their professional development budgets, easing teacher qualifications or increasing class sizes. Georgia increased its class sizes more than a decade ago and has never changed them back.

“There's a lot of things programs want, but when it comes to costs, states don’t have enough money to do it all,” Weisenfeld explains. “They often cut the things that increase quality. And then you don’t get the outcomes you expect in a quality program.”

[Programs] often cut the things that increase quality. And then you don’t get the outcomes you expect.”

Relaxed Teacher Qualifications and Requirements

A number of states changed their teacher qualifications and professional development requirements over the past year to make it easier to recruit new educators.

Twelve states relaxed their qualifications for lead teachers, the senior-most educator in a classroom, and one state, Delaware, waived background checks for teachers. Some made these changes because they weren’t finding qualified staff under their existing requirements, Weisenfeld says. In other cases, it was a logistical matter, complicated by prolonged closures and restrictions. In Maine, preschool teachers were given an extra year to renew their licenses. New York allowed new teachers to gain certification if they had finished all of their coursework but hadn’t been able to take their exams due to cancelations during the pandemic.

Connecticut is among the states that relaxed its lead teacher requirements, waiving certain education and experience hurdles for its new hires, such as holding a bachelor degree or Child Development Associate credential and having reached a minimum number of hours working with young children. Michelle Levy, an early childhood specialist at the state’s Office of Early Childhood, explained that the change offered programs flexibility and helped them fill positions during a period of higher-than-usual turnover.

“We still strongly support programs hiring people with qualifications and strong backgrounds in early childhood,” Levy emphasizes. “But we have tried to make adjustments regarding the situations they’ve found themselves in. Our plan is to work with programs to move from some of the temporary adjustments they’ve had to make back to meeting all these requirements.”

Levy notes that although the changes were “not ideal,” she feels that with strong leadership and adequate training, the state can support these new hires in getting up to speed and ensuring high-quality learning for children in Connecticut.

At the same time, many state-funded preschool programs have allowed teachers extra time to complete their professional development requirements or participate in coaching during the pandemic—largely an attempt to retain existing educators. It was also common for states to move their professional development offerings to a virtual platform and to shift the content to be more responsive to what teachers and their students needed during the pandemic. Where remote learning was taking place, professional learning focused on how to deliver that instruction and operate a virtual classroom. In other cases, the content was geared toward children’s mental health and trauma.

In the fall, Connecticut began working with the Erikson Institute’s Technology in Early Childhood Center to provide training to its educators around remote learning. The state education department also offered webinars to educators, and quality improvement training was shifted online.

“We tried to really balance how much professional learning we were putting out initially,” Levy says. “We wanted to continue to offer opportunities, but not overwhelm.”

Enrollment Fluctuations Threaten Preschool Funding

NIEER found that enrollment was down about 41 percent from last year, among states that provided estimates of fall 2020 numbers.

With program closures and parents skittish about sending kids back to school too soon, most state-funded preschool programs reported a decrease in enrollment in the 2020-21 school year, compared to the previous year. NIEER found that it was down about 41 percent, among states that provided an estimate of fall 2020 enrollment. However, enrollment has fluctuated with the pandemic, and many states reported that their numbers were up in spring 2021 compared to the fall.

Still, fewer children are enrolled in preschool programs this year than normal. This trend, while understandable, could have major implications for program funding next year and, by extension, deal a blow to program quality, Weisenfeld explains. States determine preschool programs’ budgets based on their enrollment during the prior year, often looking at data from October. “That’s super concerning,” Weisenfeld says.

Because this year has been atypical, a number of states, including California, Mississippi, Minnesota and New Jersey, have said they will hold preschools harmless and not link 2021-2022 funding to the current year’s enrollment. Most states have not made such a commitment.

“If they don’t hold programs harmless, budgets will be cut, and fewer children will be served or quality will be [impacted],” Weisenfeld says. “If you reduce the costs of a program, you take away supports that allow quality to happen.”

Amid the disruption of the past year, much has been changed, compromised or lost. As the crisis abates in the U.S.—which seems likely, given the pace of the vaccination rollout—many preschool programs will have a lot of rebuilding to do.

“A lot of our programs have really risen to the challenge and done some amazing things,” says Levy, “but we also know how much they’re dealing with. Overall, we’re going to have to do some deep, hard work to get back to thinking about quality. … We have to think systematically about how to support them moving forward.”

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