Preschool Matters Today

Lessons from China to Keep and Teach Our Children Well, Especially the Youngest


April 9, 2020
Dr. W. Steven Barnett and Dr. Zijia Li

Having dealt with COVID-19 longer than any nation, China’s experience offers important lessons for American early care and education policymakers. China responded to the virus’ impact on children in two broad moves: (1) closing school and child care classrooms nationwide and (2) providing free educational resources and guidance for remote learning and teaching for teachers and parents.

By closing all school and preschool classrooms while providing for children’s education in other ways, China sent a message to its citizens and the world: We can keep our children safe and continue their education at the same time. This policy had the secondary benefit of protecting vulnerable adults by limiting transmission through children even though the primary goal was to meet the needs of children.

US policy on COVID-19 has failed to prioritize the safety and education of children, especially preschool-age children. Even as public school classrooms have been closed in most of our country, some private schools and child care, including family home day care, remain operating as usual. Where schools and child care are operating under emergency rules, confusion reigns and regulatory exemptions may increase risk to children. We and our children will pay a heavy price—now and well into the future—if we fail to improve our policies.

America should learn from China’s example and close all schools, preschools, and child center classrooms except to provide child care for children of essential workers who lack other options. Since we are not China, where most young children live in extended families that can provide child care, we need to provide alternate child care arrangements for America’s emergency and essential personnel. We can mobilize providers to care for the children of essential workers, but this should be under more stringent standards that limit the number of adults and children in contact with each other and prevent the spread of infection. Hazard pay, smaller groups, one-to-one care (especially for infants who are most vulnerable), and dedicated staff for health monitoring and cleaning may be necessary.

When we close early childhood classrooms we also need to emulate China’s “Learning Doesn’t Stop When School is Closed” policy that provides free educational resources for students and guidance that supports learning outside the classroom for parents and teachers. Just because children are home does not mean teachers—including child care and preschool teachers–have nothing to do. In fact, teachers have so much to do we should centralize production and distribution of resources to lessen the burden on teachers and on parents working at home, too. Teachers can then devote more time communicating with students and parents and in educating young children through a mix of online and other home activities instead of developing materials and activities from scratch.

In the US, parents, early childhood teachers, and administrators have largely been left to figure out for themselves how to continue early education. That is inefficient, ineffective, and inequitable. Polls find most preschool and primary teachers do not feel well-prepared to carry out these activities alone. Teachers as well as parents (many now working from home) face a complex and difficult challenge in meeting the learning, social-emotional, and physical activity needs of children at home. If we do not mobilize all levels of government to support teachers and parents better, children’s learning and development will suffer.

Educating young children when classrooms are closed is especially difficult because they learn best from active interaction with materials, adults, and other children. Supporting their continued education is not just a matter of sending materials home, giving them access to online resources, and ensuring that meals continue to be provided for those in poverty. If we fail to adequately support children’s learning and development while classrooms including federal Head Start, are closed, young children in poverty will be harmed the most. Most public preschool programs are aimed at reducing the great inequalities already evident in child development before children start kindergarten. America cannot abandon—even temporarily—its responsibility to educate these young children.

Despite our cultural differences, many aspects of China’s response can benefit America’s youngest learners, especially a nationwide policy—to implement now and build on in the long-term—that ensures early learners remain safe and their education continues during this and any future emergencies. The federal government should fund and state governments should lead efforts to design and coordinate our educational response. States with similar standards should collaborate with each other. For young children, states should collaborate with the federal Head Start program to develop resources and guidance aligned with state standards.

We can—and should—learn from China’s experience. Our children’s safety and education depend on it.  For more details on what China’s efforts look like, we provide a companion document here.

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Dr. W. Steven Barnett is Board of Governors Professor of Education at the Rutgers Graduate School of Education and Senior Co-Director of the National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

Dr. Zijia Li, is an Assistant Research Professor at the National Institute for Early Education Research, Rutgers Graduate School of Education.

The National Institute for Early Education Research (NIEER), within the Rutgers Graduate School of Education, has been following China’s response, which is more fully described in a companion paper by Dr. Lin Li, a NIEER visiting scholar from East China Normal University.