The ‘head start' we need to ensure success for all kids

The ‘head start' we need to ensure success for all kids

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the lasting impact of institutional racism and inequities—from health care to affordable housing—that exist throughout our state. We see this clearly in the impact the pandemic has had on our early childhood system and the children and families we serve.

While some parents have struggled to juggle a whole family working, learning and playing under one roof, others have struggled with continuing to show up to work each day without child care or, worse, with how to provide for their families without work in this new reality. While families with resources are finding new ways to keep their children learning, those who struggled before or whose lives have been upended will not recover as easily. Young children are not receiving the screenings and interventions to address problems in their earliest stages. Even before the pandemic, only 1 out of every 4 children in our state entered kindergarten ready to learn, and we will see the ripple effects of this loss for decades to come.

The period of rapid brain development that occurs during a child's first five years and lays the foundation for their future success in school and in life is unrepeatable. Given how much growth and development happens in such a short period of time for little ones, we will not be able to just pick up where we left off.

Research has proven that early childhood programs and high-quality services—from birth—are the answer to so many of the inequities our communities face. Every dollar invested in quality early education yields a $6.30 return, improving education, employment and health outcomes, and also saving on later remediation costs.

Yet across the state, an unprecedented number of early learning programs for young children and families are in jeopardy, especially those serving under-resourced communities. We are already seeing the loss of child care and early learning centers that have been unable to weather the shutdown. Almost all of our state's open child care programs are serving fewer children now than they were prior to the pandemic—average enrollment is down by 63 percent. One out of every 2 licensed child care slots is at risk of disappearing in the state. Child care centers and programs serving under-resourced communities will not be quickly replaced.

Our fragmented early childhood system needs to be built back better. We must build a coordinated system, beginning with prenatal care and extending into preschool, that is aligned to ensure all families have access to early supports that set children and families up for success and can withstand the next pandemic and other unforeseen external forces. We must forge stronger partnerships between private and public stakeholders to develop and implement a common early childhood agenda that will create an integrated early childhood system, incorporating evidence-based practices and methods to address the impact of the pandemic. Recovery and improvement will not happen in isolation.

The pandemic has shaken the ground beneath us, but we have an opportunity to build back a better system that truly places the needs of our youngest citizens at the center and can minimize the pandemic's impact on their futures. Supporting families in ensuring that young children get the best start possible is not just a nice thing to do—it sets up our education systems and industries for success as well. There is no better time than now to work together toward this goal. Let's start early.

Linda T. Francis is backbone director at the Ounce of Prevention Fund.