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Opinion: Pandemic underscores the need for funding early childhood learning programs

The Covid pandemic and debate about school re-openings has brought into clear focus the importance of early childhood learning.

Health concerns drive the argument for postponing in-person classes.

Yet those calling for a brick-and-mortar return, in part, want to help parents get back to work, but, more importantly, also to keep children on pace with their education.

While virtual classrooms work fine for some students, the overwhelming evidence shows you don’t get the same outcomes as face-to-face learning. And that is especially true with low-income and minority students, who experience an achievement gap in schools even in the best of circumstances.

Only 60 percent of low-income students regularly log into online classes, compared to 90 percent of high-income students, according to data from the digital instruction provider, Curriculum Associates. The data also show engagement rates lag in schools serving predominantly black and Hispanic students, with fewer than 70 percent logging in regularly.

These metrics put the average learning loss due to middle closures at seven months, according to research by the data analytics company McKinsey. But Black students may fall behind more than 10 months, Hispanic students by more than 9 month, and low-income students by more than a year.

To be sure, access to healthy meals, computers and the internet contribute to the achievement gap.

But the differences also might not be so stark with stronger early learning programs.

We know that early learning programs for children under 8 years old is a predictor of later success both in school and life.

And it’s not only about imparting skills and knowledge.

“Readiness doesn’t mean just knowing the academic basics. It means a child has a willing attitude and confidence in the process of learning: a healthy state of mind,” wrote research Dan Gartrell in an article for the National Association for Education of Young Children.

Federal and state lawmakers provided support to the early childhood education programs through CARES, the federal Covid relief package. But we need long-term fixes and funding.

State lawmakers should bolster early learning budgets and support programs that help the early learning workforce. In 2019, Florida spent just $2,253 per child enrolled in Voluntary Pre-Kindergarten (VPK), down from $3,178 per student when our VPK program began in 2008. And we reached only two of 10 early learning quality standard benchmarks.

At the federal level, we need to urge Congress to pass a major funding package for the industry. A recent survey found that only 18% of child care centers nationally predict they can survive longer than a year without any sort of federal bailout. Unless we are ready to lose more than 80% of child care centers in our communities, we need to act.

As chair of the Hillsborough County Early Learning Coalition board, I am proud to also join the Children’s Movement of Florida Bosses for Babies initiative, which invites

Florida business leaders to join the cause for early childhood education in whatever capacity they can. I encourage my colleagues in the Tampa business community to get involved, too.

You can get started by visiting

The children – our future — depends on it.

Aakash-PatelAbout the Author: Aakash Patel is the founder and President of Elevate, Inc., a strategic business consulting firm providing public relations, community relations, targeted networking and social media. Appointed by the governor, Patel currently serves as the board chairman of The Early Learning Coalition of Hillsborough County.

Laura Byrne
Laura Byrne
Laura Byrne is an award-winning former television news journalist who spent 15+ years in newsrooms across the state of Florida including Sarasota, Tallahassee, Fort Myers and right here in Tampa Bay where she still freelances on occasion. She covered the political beat, crime beat and every day breaking news during her time in Florida newsrooms, but is now focused on sharing positive news stories and events with families in Tampa Bay. She is a proud mommy of two little boys who keep her on her toes and laughing every day. Her goal is to inspire families just like yours to get out and play and experience all that Tampa Bay and our great state of Florida have to offer! She encourages you to share your stories and upcoming events so we can spread the good news.

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