The Permanent Developmental Impact of a Temporary Pandemic

by Anika Kumar

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COVID-19 has drastically impacted children across the nation. From preschool and daycare closures to the overall loss of financial security impacting children’s home environments, the coronavirus has brought upon a surge of unfavorable circumstances that will pose both short-term and long-term consequences to children’s development.

Early childhood education, one of the most important contributors to a child’s development, has become increasingly deprioritized as a result of the pandemic. Preschool is the time in which children first acquire social and emotional skills that will be built upon throughout their future [1]. With higher college graduation rates and lower incarceration rates, preschool graduates enjoy a multitude of benefits that aid societal growth at large [2]. Yet despite such notable benefits, preschool attendance has been on a steady decline since March 2020 [3]. Chicago Public schools have seen an overall drop in enrollment by 4%, and 57% of this drop consists of preschoolers and kindergartners [4]. Similarly, some cities in Minnesota are experiencing 18% drops in kindergarten enrollment alone [5]. Parents frustrated by online lessons have started embracing other options such as homeschooling or even delaying the start of their children’s school education altogether [5].

With the task-oriented nature of most online preschool programs, children miss out on multiple avenues of social and physical development. The interactive nature of a traditional, in-person preschool helps children develop their social skills through communication and spontaneous conversation [6]. Additionally, learning is driven by play. Children are able to expand upon their linguistic, spatial, and overall cognitive skills through problem-solving, reasoning, peer-led discussion, and creative exploration of interactive games and objects that cannot be replicated digitally [6]. Furthermore, children hone their gross and fine motor skills during the preschool age [6]. Sitting in front of a screen discourages children from moving around their setting as they would in traditional preschool. Although online games may be able to teach students the names of different colors, shapes, letters, and numbers, they are unable to teach the social-emotional skills that are known to be the greatest predictor of kindergarten readiness [7].

Along with preschools, many daycares began shutting down as the pandemic progressed in full force. Local and state governments as well as the Centers for Disease Control began issuing strict guidelines that providers were required to meet before allowing children to return [8]. The costs of instituting these changes have been relentless: more staff must be hired to handle smaller class sizes, legal fees rise in the process of obtaining government loans, and the need for more cleaning supplies and personnel heightens to prevent future outbreaks [8].

Jenna Antico, a childcare operator from Florida, has been particularly affected by the pandemic safety requirements. To abide by new guidelines, she added four new walls to her center in order to reduce the number of children per classroom [8]. In addition, she purchased sixteen portable sinks and hired five new sanitation workers to deep clean the center each night [8]. With all the new documentation to keep up with, she began paying her administrative assistant overtime, only increasing her expenses. Despite receiving a $91,000 Paycheck Protection Program loan through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, Antico is still left with an additional $70,000 worth of debt [8]. To make matters worse, both of her new facilities remain vacant, and Antico has become increasingly concerned with the risk of a future closure.

Many other providers are in Antico’s position. 86% of childcare providers are serving fewer children now than they were before the pandemic, while 70% are incurring substantial new operating costs [9]. Across the industry, enrollment has dramatically reduced by nearly two-thirds [9]. It is estimated that an alarming 40% of childcare programs will shut down permanently in the near future [9].

Experts believe that the decline of childcare centers throughout the nation may have a domino effect across the economy. In addition to entrepreneurs like Antico, about 1.1 million other childcare workers will face financial hardship [10]. Furthermore, parents who depend on daycare centers to go to work and support their families are negatively impacted. Without access to affordable and convenient childcare, it becomes impossible for some parents to work outside the home.

Economic insecurity at the household level could present unfavorable home environments for a developing child. Such environments are linked to adverse childhood experiences that can negatively impact their social-emotional development, learning, and health. Families experiencing economic difficulties may have inconsistent access to healthy foods, safe transportation, and housing [11]. Each of these factors significantly contributes to increased parental stress, and nutritional deficiencies in particular can severely delay children’s physical and mental development. Additionally, as children spend more time in these stress-inducing environments, their risk of exposure to family violence increases [12]. During the first two months of the lockdown, pediatricians across the country reported treating an increased number of severe injuries caused by abuse [13]. Even in homes where violence is not an issue, high levels of stress hinder the formation of a healthy parent-child bond. With an increased focus on the social and financial consequences of the pandemic, parents spend less time interacting with their children. As a result, children are delayed in their mental and linguistic development and experience greater difficulty regulating their emotions, exhibiting confident social behaviors, and developing problem-solving skills [14]. Such outcomes make it more challenging for a child to perform well academically and develop healthy relationships with others later in life.

COVID-19 reminds us that hindrances to successful child development are often prompted by economic instability. However, there are some nation-wide changes that can be implemented to mitigate their consequences. One study showed that raising the minimum wage by $1 reduces reports of child maltreatment by nearly 10 percent [15]. Additionally, federal funding has the potential to greatly ease the burden of many individuals around the country. However, the $3.5 billion currently being provided to states through the Child Care and Development Block Grant of the CARES Act is not sufficient [16]. Thus, in July 2020, the U.S. House of Representatives passed the Child Care Is Essential Act, which would provide a $50 billion investment to stabilize the industry [17]. However, the Senate has failed to act on this bill. Without significant federal investment, half of America’s child care capacity is at risk of permanent closure [18]. This could negatively impact the American economy, put thousands of child care jobs at stake, leave millions of children without access to child care, and increase familial and economic stresses at home that foster unfavorable circumstances for child development. Amidst such difficult times, it has become increasingly important to support the childcare employers through funding in order to promote child welfare across the country.

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