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Opinion: Decisive action needed to avert lasting harm for the youngest Coloradans

Much has been written about the anticipated impact on K-12 and postsecondary students from the unprecedented disruption of learning caused by COVID-19. 

For Colorado’s youngest children, the disruption could be much more severe. 

Young children age 0-8 are learning the foundational skills that will support all future learning, skills that underlie their future growth and well-being. Research clearly demonstrates that the impact of young children’s relationships and experiences, including early childhood education — or lack thereof — is felt decades later.

Eric Anderson

At the same time, the early care and learning infrastructure is threatened because – unlike most K-12 teachers – early childhood providers may not get paid when children are stuck home.

To exacerbate the situation, a crush of new children may enter the system at the beginning of the summer, traditionally a quiet time for early care and learning programs, as parents rush back into the job market to make up for lost earnings. Given the potentially dire negative impacts of the pandemic on early care and learning programs in Colorado, capacity may well be lacking at a time of great need.

What’s more, some of these young children may have or develop intense social-emotional needs from trauma or toxic stress experienced during time they are confined at home in close quarters with family members and others who are wrestling with economic hardship, domestic strife and substance use or mental health issues.

Katharine Brenton

Given the sensitivity of brain development in the early years, compounded by learning loss related to COVID-19, many children may never reach their full potential and may struggle with the resulting deficits for the rest of their lives.

That’s why the summer of 2020 must be transformed into an intensive period of remedial learning that puts young children — particularly those at greater risk for developmental delays — back on track.  

Think of it as the Summer Learning Leap.

Success will require a fundamental paradigm shift among parents and other caregivers and providers and a collective commitment to recouping lost learning opportunities for our state’s youngest residents. And it will require a significant boost of technical assistance, logistical support, public awareness and both philanthropic and governmental funding.

The overwhelming uncertainty of the current moment leaves leaders, philanthropic organizations and government struggling to prioritize the most pressing issues to address. From supporting the increasing ranks of unemployed workers to meeting basic needs of vulnerable children and families, there are many challenges ahead for our state.

READ: Colorado Sun opinion columnists.

While recognizing the competing priorities, we believe it is essential to speak up for those who will not have the opportunity to speak for themselves: children age 0-8.

Most critically, Summer Learning Leap will require public will and a sense of urgency. Although funding sources are more strained than ever, the impact of these investments in Colorado’s youngest children will be felt decades from now.

As we see it, the immediate next steps include convening stakeholders, including funders, early childhood councils, state leaders and providers and creating a basic roadmap for aligning these stakeholders around the steps needed to implement Summer Learning Leap in a very short time.

The concept needs buy-in and to secure investment from philanthropic and public funders quickly. With new resources, Colorado’s network of 34 Early Childhood Councils across the state is well-situated to provide the technical assistance and support to providers that will enable us to meet this challenge. An awareness campaign focused on early care and learning providers and parents and caregivers will ensure strong participation.

Implementing Summer Learning Leap and accomplishing these objectives will be a collective process and there is no time to waste.

Now is the time to act decisively to prevent potentially even more devastating and long-term impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on Colorado’s future workers, leaders and community members. 

Eric Anderson (@Eric_A_Anderson)  is co-owner and Katharine Brenton is a strategist at SE2, a Colorado-based communications and marketing agency that works at the intersection of policy, perception and behavior on behalf of clients that seek to move the world for good. They can be reached at Eric@SE2communications.com and Katharine@SE2communications.com.

Rising Sun