Margaret Norrie McCain is the chair of the Margaret and Wallace McCain Family Foundation and the former Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick
As the coronavirus flames across the globe, it fuels another health hazard: economic inequality. Pandemics are particularly brutal purveyors of inequality, pushing many of the burdens onto the disadvantaged. Those from low income groups are not only more likely to catch the disease, they are more likely to die from it. Even those who avoid infection will see their incomes decline, the results of quarantine and mass unemployment.
Early learning and child care is a powerful equalizer, narrowing achievement gaps that emerge before children even start school. Educational child care is needed more than ever to help families address the trauma of the pandemic, to support parent employment and to ensure children aren’t left behind.
Government stimulus may soften the financial jolt on individuals and snap back stock markets but the virus creates new inequalities, such as a gap between those able to work from home and those who cannot. Researchers calculated that as many as 40 per cent of jobs could plausibly be performed at home.
The work-from-home revolution has its own pandemic penalties. Women may be called upon to put their careers on hold to take over labour in the home as access to schools, child care and elder care shrinks. Trying to replicate the stimulation of preschool between Zoom meetings is a barrier to mothers keeping pace with the demands of the workplace.
For children, the benefits of at-home learning are modulated by their parents’ time and literacy and access to outdoor play space, computers and the internet. Unstable housing, food insecurity and other adverse circumstances undermine learning, exacerbating inequity.
Experiences with emergency child care demonstrate the social importance of early learning and the essential role of government leadership. Officials recognize early learning and care as an important bulwark against the pandemic, and thus, need to invest accordingly.
Too many early childhood programs were in difficulty before the onset of COVID-19, unable to recruit qualified staff and struggling financially. Those that make it through the lockdowns will be ill-equipped to compensate children for the time they lost with educators and friends. Early childhood education needs to be removed from market fluctuations and take its place as education’s first tier, supported by a strong public infrastructure and open to all children. We also need public investment and accountability to ensure early learning and child care benefit children while accommodating parent workforce participation.
Children require educators and leadership who can design early learning and care environments that maintain essential health and safety practices. But this is not enough. Educators must consider how to adapt pedagogy to counter the challenges of the pandemic and ensure the social and emotional well-being of young children. A bigger role for outdoor play offers a way to reduce the number of children in indoor spaces and expand learning opportunities. Qualified educators are essential and will require adequate compensation and systems to support their work with children and families.
Released in February, my foundation’s Early Years Study 4 pointed to the current and future returns of public investment in early learning and care. This has not changed. Dollars invested in early childhood programs are spent in local economies where educators and families live and work. Parents are freed to take on the jobs that keep our communities functioning and generate the tax dollars that pay for vital services. The future return on investment comes from reducing the draw on special education, promoting higher graduation rates, and a more competent workforce and capable citizenry.
COVID-19 has propelled early learning and care to the forefront. By investing wisely, we can empower this generation of children to confront the disparities, environmental degradation and other conditions that gave rise to the pandemic and create a more sustainable and just world.
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