In the five months since most Californians were ordered to shelter in place, parents and caretakers of preschool students have largely been left to fill the learning gap that began to widen when schools closed in the spring.

While students in all grades have experienced a learning loss, researchers say preschool students face a particular risk. Early childhood education is considered a critical time that lays the groundwork for children’s academic careers.

“Even in kindergarten, children had more continuity of services, more contact, more of everything than preschoolers whose centers closed,” said Steve Barnett, co-director of The National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers Graduate School of Education, an independent research center on early childhood education practice and policy. “Their learning loss is probably greater because of the lower number of services, but also because the younger the child, the harder distance learning is.”

High-quality preschool and Head Start programs have shown long-term benefits with higher graduation rates, lower incarceration rates and higher earnings, according to numerous studies. While all children benefit from preschool, the most gains are often shown by poor and disadvantaged kids.

But the coronavirus pandemic has taken a toll, resulting in the nation’s preschoolers losing two-to-four months of crucial learning opportunities, according to a nationwide survey conducted between May 22 and June 5 by the National Institute for Early Education Research.

The survey found that the pandemic resulted in the closing of programs for three-quarters (74%) of the children attending a preschool. As schooling transitioned to the home, parents reported minimal support, with about a third saying they received pre-recorded videos and more than half saying their child was provided worksheets or other paper or digital learning aids.

The survey results were based on a nationally representative sample of 1,000 interviews with parents of children age 3 to 5 on the child’s daily activities during the pandemic and the child’s childcare, preschool or kindergarten both before and during the pandemic. For children whose programs had closed, parents were asked to describe the support they received to continue virtual learning.

While many California districts and preschool programs are offering distance learning, the amount of time that teachers spend on preschool distance learning classes with students can range from once a week to every day. Many preschool teachers are also sending parents supplemental guides that they can use to work with their children. But the level of support teachers provide depends on each program’s resources and capacity, as well as the needs of students.

“Neither parents nor preschools were prepared for the sudden transition forced on us by the pandemic,” said Barnett,  a study author. “Perhaps 10 percent of preschool children received a robust replacement for in-person preschool attendance. Preschools should either reopen or prepare a much stronger response to remote support for young children’s learning and development.”

In March, child care operated out of private homes largely remained open, but most public and private preschools closed after shelter-in-place orders went into effect. Some schools have reopened for child care, but not for in-person instruction, others for in-person instruction with safety precautions.

A juggling act for parents

Perhaps most common during the pandemic is that not all families have the capacity to develop teaching lessons for their young children. Some parents have other children to also teach or lack the necessary tools. Many are working — whether inside or outside the home.

Lucy Mendez, mother to a 5 and 12 year old, has worked from her Central California home in Clovis since mid-March as the branch manager of an economic development organization. She’s also done her best to meet her children’s academic needs.

She teaches her youngest daughter, Abrielle Mendez, through a combination of virtual classes, everyday activities and the teaching materials her daughter’s preschool teacher sends via email three to four times a week. The materials range from links to videos, songs, worksheets and ideas for craft activities, which keep the 5-year-old occupied while Mendez works.

Her daughter’s preschool, Early Learning Center in Fresno Unified, initially took about two weeks to distribute the tablets students needed to learn from home. By the second week of April, Abrielle was attending her first distance learning class which opened with getting reacquainted with the other students.

“She was sad in the beginning, and she asked why she couldn’t go to school with her classmates. At that time in March, we still thought this wouldn’t last too long,” said Mendez. “Then, when she had her first video session, she was so excited to see her classmates, and she’s much more used to it now.”

Her preschool teacher, who, like Abrielle, speaks Spanish and English, also sends bilingual teaching materials. Recently, they’ve been learning about insects: what they are, what they do, how they grow.

Despite the support from her preschool program, Mendez has noticed a difference in her daughter’s attention level and interests. For example, Abrielle doesn’t enjoy writing as much as she used to while at her preschool.

“It makes sense,” said Mendez. “She’s used to doing her work with classmates, so she loses interest much faster doing it alone at home.”

Sometimes, when she needs company, Abrielle will move her workstation from a desk in her room to the kitchen table, where her older brother does his schoolwork. And once a week, on Thursdays, she sees her classmates at 11 a.m. in a virtual class for about an hour, though the children sometimes stay on longer to chat amongst themselves.

When she can, Mendez finds learning lessons in everyday activities like cooking breakfast. As they cook, Mendez will often ask her daughter to get an ingredient, such as eggs, and they’ll practice numbers by counting the eggs they need for their meal.

The result is a lot of pressure on families as they attempt to help the youngest students keep up with their learning.

The tension can be notably detrimental to children’s academic and social development, according to professor Yolanda Carlos, who specializes in early childhood education at Pacific Oaks University in Pasadena.

“I really believe the thing we should focus on is a healthy relationship. It contributes significantly to academic achievement,” she said. “More important than those learning skills is keeping in mind the relationship.”

If there is considerable stress in the home, particularly while parents lead teaching lessons for their children, the child could begin to associate that stress with learning and determine they do not like school, said Carlos.

‘It should never be stressful’

“The important point is that it should never be stressful,” agreed Stanford professor Deborah Stipek, whose research focuses on early childhood education. She noted that preschool is designed to be educational in a playful way.

Valuable learning experiences exist in everyday activities, according to Stipek and Carlos. Cooking can turn into a measurement lesson, sorting laundry can be a lesson in learning colors, getting dressed in the morning can be a lesson in counting the buttons on a shirt, going on a walk can lead to a discussion about nature.

Miriam Arambula has relied on those everyday activities to ensure her 4-year-old daughter, Adaline Curiel, continues learning.

“As a parent, it’s more about thinking outside the box in continuing to teach them,” said Arambula, a social worker who works with veterans. “She loves to bake. So, for me, I found myself getting her involved more in the home.”

Their conversations as they bake will resemble something like this: “Let’s look at the instructions. How many eggs do you see? Okay, it says two eggs. Where do we get the eggs from? What’s the next step? Okay, it needs oil. Where do we keep our oil? How much do we need? Water is next. How much water do we need?”

Arambula often researches activities and worksheets for Adaline to mix in with the teaching materials that her preschool teacher sends every Sunday in advance of the weekly Monday morning video call. A structure like the preschool is important for their family, because Adaline has attended her early learning center in Fresno since she was 3 months old.

Prior to COVID-19, Adaline would spend her day at her learning center, which is normally open during Arambula’s work hours. It’s all she’s ever known, said Arambula, who works outside the home. Her daughter’s father, a construction consultant, now arranges his work schedule to be available for Adaline during weekdays.

One of Adaline’s hurdles with distance learning has been with the weekly video call because it happens on her tablet, which is typically for fun screen time.

“It’s hard for them to understand this is school, not just Facetime with the teacher,” said Arambula.

Though these obstacles could be stressful for parents and children, Arambula said she knows that changes are difficult for young children to process.

“I’m out from work at 5, I leave the work stress at the door, and I come home as mommy to Adaline and not let her see that stress,” she said. “Your stress causes your baby’s stress, because they love you. If you had a rough day, be mindful about it and do your self-care before you see your child.”

Advocates agree that, with the new school year beginning, remaining flexible with young children is crucial.

“I think sometimes it’s really stressful for the child and the mom or the dad,” said Patricia Lozano, executive director of Early Edge California, an early childhood education advocacy organization. “If there’s any opportunity for you to naturally introduce some concepts, they’ll learn what you’re trying to show them … it’s more about the quality of the time you spend with your child rather than the quantity.”

Lozano, who is also teaching her own school-aged children while working from home said that “everyone is in the same situation,” a comment that experts Carlos and Stipek echoed.

Ultimately, she highlighted the importance of remembering this: “Parents, you are doing your best.”

Story originally published by EdSource.