Covid-19 and tragedy in toddler's education
The longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long-term negative impacts including future income and health.
Early childhood, the years from birth to age six, has been medically proven to be the most critical period that sets the stage for a child’s growth and learning trajectory. Research from neurobiology and cognitive development experts suggests that 90 per cent of brain development occurs in the first six years of life. According to the center on the developing Child at Harvard University, the emotional and physical health, social skills and cognitive – linguistic capacities that emerge in the early years are all important prerequisites for success in schools and later in workplace and community. UNICEF has stated that “during the critical early year’s children need responsive care, adequate nutrition, stimulation and protection to develop their social, emotional and cognitive skills. It is thus the reason why early childhood education is imperative for the development of our nation’s youngest citizens.
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In response to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, countries around the world have taken unprecedented steps in an effort to prevent and contain the spread of the virus. Some of these containment measures have included closures of schools and childcare services, lockdown and guidelines of physical distancing, shutting down of non-essential business and suspension of community and recreation services and programs. The ripple effects of such actions and the impact on families and societies is now being felt and seen in very real ways including strain on healthcare systems, a pending economic crisis, food and housing insecurity and social upheaval. These disruptions to everyday life mean that many young children are at home unable to attend early childhood education and care and are therefore now entirely reliant on their caregivers for nurturing care to meet all of their developmental needs. This added burden on families to balance childcare and work responsibilities, compounded by economic instability and social isolation in many cases, is fertile ground for home environments characterized by toxic stress. We know that optimal brain development requires a stimulating and enriching environment, adequate nutrition, learning opportunities and social interaction with attentive caregivers. Under the current pandemic context, access to these opportunities will likely be severely restricted, compromising the healthy developmental trajectory of many children. Unsafe conditions, negative interactions and lack of educational opportunities during the early years can lead to irreversible outcomes, which can affect a child’s potential for the remainder of his or her life. While every educational institution in India shut down in March 2020 and most moved online to ensure continued learning during the pandemic. We have approximately 165 million children in the 0-5 year’s age group who have lost out on early childhood care and learning centers dedicated to their development continue to remain closed. According to UNICEF, school closures can lead to drastically negative outcomes for children to multiple risks. The longer schools are closed, the more children suffer from extensive learning losses with long-term negative impacts including future income and health. Depending on their age, gender and disability or social economy status, many children (especially adolescents) do not return to school after long closures and many more are expected to suffer permanent losses to their learning. In addition, children rely on schools for nutrition, psychological support and health services.
While some preschool operators across the country shifted to an online format to offer uninterrupted learning, a certain section of parents voiced their concerns about the increase in the time young children would spend in front of a screen and its impact and did not enroll their children into an online program for the rest of 2020. Although there is evidence that spending a long period in front of a screen can impact children, the effect of zero learning year on a child’s long term development is more harmful and can cause multipliers effect as a child grows up. According to a recent survey, parents of toddlers are quite worried about their children losing out on learning, and believe that it is very important to keep a child’s education going during this pandemic. Nearly 95 per cent of the parents surveyed stated that they have enrolled their child in some form of learning online or homeschooling, to ensure continuity in their education. For those who took up an online format in 2020 for their toddlers to avoid a near zero- learning year. When asked about the achievement of learning outcomes of their children, parents cited that their children were able to grasp important pre-academic skills such as recognizing colors, printed names, letters of the alphabets, numbers etc. more than any other skill. The survey also reveals that many parents believe that while academic learning is being somewhat managed and learning outcomes are being addressed, parents are also worried about their child’s social and physical development. As per the survey findings, 80% of parents who had enrolled in online pre-schooling saw delivery of clear learning outcomes and 75% of these parents were willing to recommend online pre-schooling to their friends and families. Making sure that preschoolers get a high quality early childhood education, whether online or offline is the most important priority for parents as it impacts the children’s ability to learn, manage their own behaviors and get along well with others and also acts as a foundation for success in adult life.
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The immediate and long-term negative effects of the pandemic on children’s health and development are likely to disproportionately affect families in communities with high concentrations of poverty, lack of access to quality healthcare and affordable childcare, food and housing insecurity and limited services for family support. Similarly, the ongoing crisis is likely only to exacerbate the situation of children living in home environment characterised by a lack of access to developmentally appropriate resources, such as toys and books, low levels of stimulation and responsive care or inadequate supervision prior to the crisis. Also it may be unrealistic to expect caregivers, particularly those with low levels of education or limited caregiving skills to begin with, to be able to offset the resulting gaps from children’s lack of attendance to education and other care opportunities. Mitigating the negative impact of COVID-19 on young children will require strategic multisectoral approaches and the synergy of interventions in health, nutrition, security, protection, participation and early education.
(The views expressed are the writer's own)