Early learning centers serving dual language students need more support, research finds

There has been a significant push to reopen in-person school settings for California’s youngest students, but more must be done to support early learning centers that address the needs of dual language learners, according to a new report.

The brief from Early Edge California and the American Institutes for Research — “A System in Jeopardy: California’s Early Learning System and its Dual Language Learners During the COVID-19 Pandemic” — found that as a result of the pandemic, 78 percent of children served in early learning programs lost care. Meanwhile, 89 percent of dual language learners — children learning a language in addition to English — in those center-based programs lost care.

The problem is likely to have long-term consequences for children who receive early language and literacy development support in early learning and care centers prior to kindergarten. Throughout the state, dual language learners comprise nearly 60 percent of children 5 years and younger.

“In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, early learning and care programs are facing a wide range of challenges — some new, and some an escalation of challenges that have affected the early learning and care system for many years,” authors of the brief wrote. “Due to recent program closures and capacity restrictions as a result of COVID-19, the early learning and care system cannot currently serve all of the children who had been served by early learning programs prior to the pandemic. This change has been even more acute for young DLLs, children who stand to benefit greatly from quality early learning experiences.”

The brief cites a survey of 278 programs throughout California (including school-based programs, community-based programs, Head Start programs, state preschool programs and family child care homes) conducted between June 11 and July 16, 2020.

Findings indicate that more than a third of early learning and care programs were closed for in-person care during that time span, and those that were open were operating with reduced enrollment.

Funding and safety challenges are significant

Although many programs that closed expect to eventually reopen, 16 percent of survey respondents reported that they were not at all or only slightly likely to reopen again. Those that expected to said they face significant barriers to doing so. The brief identified critical needs among early learning programs that serve DLLs, which include funding for basic operating expenses including staff salaries and supplies, protections for their health and the health of staff and families, and guidance on how to follow new regulations and protocols.

Among those that participated in the survey:

  • 56 percent said their program space was too small or otherwise not appropriate to meet new public health requirements
  • There was a moderate to critical need for funding to cover staff salaries for 68 percent of respondents, for staff benefits for 64 percent of those surveyed, and other operating expenses for 72 percent
  • 58 percent of sites reported having to lay off or furlough staff as a result of COVID-19 disruptions, and 36 percent said they had to reduce staff pay
  • 88 percent reported a moderate or critical need for funding for newly required health and safety supplies such as masks, gloves and cleaning supplies
  • 68 percent of programs reported that obtaining cleaning supplies and personal protective equipment was a major or moderate challenge for their program

It will be important moving forward that early learning centers that serve DLLs are provided adequate guidance and funding to recover and rebuild if California wants to ensure linguistically diverse young learners and their families have opportunities for quality care and early learning experiences, researchers concluded.

Specifically, authors called for clear and consolidated guidance on the implementation of new requirements and access to emergency planning information to ensure the health and safety of care providers and the children and families they serve. Additionally, the state should ensure access to and funding for health and safety supplies, as well as funding to support operating expenses, to compensate for programs’ reduced enrollment and allow for programs to reopen or remain open.