Covid-19 & Early Childhood Education: Looking to the Past to Understand the Present

5 minute read


Covid-19 presents a major structural disruption to existing education practices. With this disruption, educational stakeholders have had to reimagine what schooling can or should look like in the midst of a global crisis. Thus, we stand in a time and space where the possibility of shifting entrenched ways of learning that researchers (e.g. Shepard, Penuel, Pellegrino, 2018) have suggested may not be the best way of learning is real. When evaluating the constraints to taking advantage of the potential for change in this current moment, it is fruitful to look to the past to understand how previous national/global crises have launched changes to the education of young children.

During the Great Depression, the number of public kindergartens dropped from 723,443 to 601,775 with a period of four years (Beatty, 1995). The Great Depression’s effect on kindergarten was of a greater magnitude than elementary or secondary grades as administrators and business leaders believed that “Since young children would not contribute to the economy for a long time, their education was expendable” (Beatty, 1995, p. 172). With the implementation of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, public nursery schools (schools designed for students younger than kindergarten) received federal funding in an effort to create jobs as a way to help the economy and secondly to help children. Obviously the emphasis on economic growth over the wellbeing of children during a national crisis did not sit well with the early childhood educators of the time who cared first about the happiness and wellbeing of young children experiencing the depression in their home lives. While there were issues with the quality of all of the programs and the training the teachers received for these ‘emergency nursery schools’, the first federally funded educational experience for children younger than kindergarten was generally perceived as a success. These Works Progress Administration (WPA) nursery schools influenced how ECE would be viewed in the years to come as these preschools included naps, meals, and more gross motor activities than elementary grades (Brown & Barry, 2019). Federal aid for the nursery schools was eventually revoked and since local schools and states were not willing to pick up the cost, the schools were closed. Thus, the Great Depression was a catalyst for experimenting with a federally funded version of prekindergarten.

A second national emergency that one could consider when trying to understand how major structural disruptions have affected early childhood education (ECE) in the past would be World War II. Once again, children were not the primary focus of WWII education expansions for policymakers, and once again, early childhood educators pushed back on this agenda. The sudden influx of women entering the workforce “caused an immediate need for child care”, but childcare outside of relatives or neighbors had been given a negative stigma (Beatty, 1995, p. 187). The solution to this problem was to once again turn to preschools. Policymakers believed that expanding nursery school by increasing their numbers and hours would be the push mothers needed to join the wartime work efforts. Some ECE educators believed that the activities of these nursery schools should include helping students express their feelings and thoughts about the war and to provide students with affection and stability (Beatty, 1995). As World War II ended, federal funds were pulled from the nursery schools and although the demand for preschool education did not diminish during this time, many of the nursery schools were forced to close due to a lack of funding.

We can see that early childhood educators and other educational stakeholders view the purposes and existence of ECE in very different ways (Whitehurst, 2018). Delaney, Whyte, and Graue (2019) write that many politically-motivated individuals “often see EC education as an investment and focus on proximal and distal outcomes that reflect the possibility of bringing EC programs to scale” (p. 196). As discussed here, this view of ECE is not new. Although the federal government responded to national crises by expanding early childhood education, it did so primarily for economic reasons. Additionally, when the federal government withdrew funding after the Great Depression and World War II, neither local nor state governments believed that the benefits of ECE were worth its cost, and the programs were dropped. However, early childhood educators seem to have consistently put children first and encouraged other stakeholders to do the same. In considering how the structural disruption of Covid-19 might influence change to early childhood education practices, the past suggests that EC teachers will once again be working against a political atmosphere concerned with economics over child wellbeing. However, we can hope that positive changes to how ECE is enacted during this time will be sustained into the future through a shared vision among teachers, families, students, and researchers that all young children have the right to a rich, quality education regardless of its economic impact.