How Charlotte will overcome the Covid-19 slide and educational inequality in today’s environment
When Covid-19 entered our lives, it not only unleashed a public health crisis and triggered a viral recession; it brought significant damage to the education of our future workforce.
Soon after classrooms closed last spring, parents and educators began speculating about the pandemic’s negative effects on learning and academic achievement. It didn’t take long for the term “Covid-19 slide” ― a reference to learning losses caused by pandemic-related disruptions ― to enter our modern-day lexicon.
Preschool-aged children have been among those most susceptible to the detrimental effects of Covid-19 slide. For this population, in-person socialization and hands-on activities are crucial. Virtual learning, as well as classroom instruction modified to incorporate necessary safety measures, has less effectively supported many of the play-based learning activities that are integral to the development of important skills.
Assessing the damage
To better understand the extent of the pandemic’s impact on the education of young children, the PNC Foundation provided funding for a study from the National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER). The findings, while not surprising, were concerning.
The study, led by early childhood education expert Dr. Steve Barnett, found that barely 10% of three- to five-year-olds enrolled in preschool prior to the pandemic received a robust replacement for in-person preschool attendance last spring. This, coupled with summer learning loss, has presented a significant challenge ― even for children who resumed in-person preschool or started kindergarten this fall.
What is most troubling to me is the study’s conclusion that the consequences of these learning disruptions will be more deeply felt by already disadvantaged children and families. This is a sobering premise for any region, as early education is essential for helping today’s children and tomorrow’s workforce achieve economic mobility. But it is especially dire for Charlotte and Mecklenburg County, where the barriers to upward mobility are all too familiar and where a shortage of early childhood educators was an issue long before the pandemic.
The path to recovery
In recent months, the Charlotte business community has stepped up in significant ways to provide much-needed assistance to early childhood education providers, students and families. From distributing tablets to ensuring access to the technology infrastructure necessary for distance learning ― to delivering food to replace the meals and snacks children would normally receive at school ― we have witnessed countless acts of generosity and kindness. We have seen community partners and nonprofits collaborate and share resources like never before. And we have witnessed how resilient our community can be during a time of crisis.
These are all great things, but as we look ahead toward long-term recovery ― and the 2021 state legislative session — we must ensure that our community’s children remain a priority. There are few certainties in today’s environment, but we do know that the detrimental impact of Covid-19 on state revenues will put pressure on its ability to support programs such as NC Pre-K. We also know that as the effects of Covid-19 become even more apparent, resources in our community will continue to grow tighter ― and we can expect to see more demands on child care and early learning centers.
It will take the efforts of the larger business community to deliver on the challenge we are facing. Business leaders, legislators and other philanthropic funders must come together in support of high-quality child care and education to ensure the recovery of our economy and the future success of generations to come. Inequality in early childhood education leads to inequality in ability, achievement, health and adult success. And prevention is more successful and less costly than remediation to close the achievement gap.
We have all made concessions in recent months to adapt to a new way of life. As access to vaccines becomes imminent and we eagerly anticipate resuming the lives we once led, we cannot dismiss the pandemic’s negative effects on learning. The children of Charlotte and Mecklenburg County need us now more than ever.
Through PNC Grow Up Great, a bilingual $500 million, multi-year initiative to help prepare children from birth to age 5 for success in school and life, PNC has championed early childhood education causes throughout North Carolina since 2012.
Weston Andress is PNC’s regional president for the Western Carolinas region.