No college this fall? Teach young children
Public Health Service Proposal:
What if we could enrich our preschoolers, while simultaneously filling the gap year of college bound highschool graduates, at a low cost, during the era of Covid 19?
With schools and daycares largely shut down, this is a question on the minds of many families. Three to six-year olds (preschool through 1st grade) are eager, energetic, and curious, craving social interaction, cognitive stimulation, and academic instruction. As parents struggle to work from home, or return to the workplace, young children benefit from more attention.
One solution? Form a service corps of recent high school graduates to educate young children in small groups. Many recent grads are motivated and capable, but now often left without plans, due to closed college campuses and a job market in ruins. With rapid training and modest financial compensation, these students could support our younger population.
With this idle (but skilled!) human capital, I propose we combine forces. We train high school and college aged students as teachers for our preschool through 1st grade children. We can adopt the Teach For America eight week summer training curriculum, which has now become a virtual training program due to the global pandemic. We can incorporate the career benefits from AmeriCorps Programs, whose main objective is to “promote a healthy and vibrant nonprofit volunteer sector that can deliver community services efficiently and effectively.” City Year, for example, trains its corps members (including some recent high school graduates) to use their skills in the classroom as tutors, mentors, coaches, etc. While teenage students will lack a bachelor’s degree, recent college applications can also reflect character, demonstrated leadership, organizational ability, a desire to help children, and achievement. They can also attend interviews with parents to ensure the right fit.
Minimize Risk - This program is designed for a ratio of 4-6 children per instructor. To enhance social distancing, parents of young children may apply and match with families they know (and may already have contact with), and work with one instructor throughout the year in a home. According to economist and Professor Emily Oster, in her Covid Explained Website, studies from the Netherlands, Italy, China, and Iceland indicate infection among children and adolescents is markedly less than among adults. Moreover, children infected with COVID-19 do not get as sick as adults. Recently, there have been alarming headlines about a severe inflammatory syndrome in children associated with COVID-19, similar to Kawasaki disease, but cases are extremely rare, and many are treated with great success.
Individual households and young adults will weigh the risk/reward ratio of this program. Those who live with someone from a vulnerable population, e.g. an elderly grandparent or someone with a compromised immune system or underlying health condition, might be loath to participate. But otherwise healthy households may embrace the small group size, while continuing to practice proper hand washing and the disinfecting of tables and surfaces.
This program is a financial “win-win”. During their gap year, teens will earn a small stipend to lead engaging, age-appropriate lessons and structured play for their “class” from 9am-12pm each day; young adults who participate in similar full-time AmeriCorps programs earn $12K-20K per year depending on the local cost of living. Families who need additional childcare, could supplement corps members' income on an hourly basis or share the cost of paying a full-time stipend. Parents return to work with peace of mind as their children receive the emotional and academic support they need.
Education Benefits: During this era of Covid 19, parents dream of returning their kids to preschool in the arms of their experienced and loving teachers. In reality, teachers may have pre existing conditions or they may feel vulnerable to the virus with so many children around. Teenage instructors are less likely to be affected by COVID.
We may not get the expertise of a professional teacher, but here we can apply the old adage: “Perfect is the enemy of good.” Volunteers may follow a scripted curriculum to help preschoolers develop early literacy skills and prevent missing out on an entire year of learning. Teenage teachers can have online resources for children who need a little more support or even tele-consult with educational specialists if necessary.
Blake Heller, a doctoral fellow at Harvard's Program on Education Policy and Governance, suggests that we look to history for guidance. Heller notes that "[d]uring the Great Depression, the federal government stepped up and founded thousands of WPA Emergency Nursery Schools across the nation to provide food security and enriching environments for young children from low-income families, and to create jobs for out-of-work teachers. The COVID-19 pandemic presents very different challenges, but the governmental response should ensure that young children, particularly those from disadvantaged families, have opportunities to continue to develop and grow academically when traditional schooling isn't an option. A national service corps would have the added benefit of providing rewarding jobs for thousands of young adults during a period of record-high youth unemployment."
Experts are in agreement that the realities of our economic state are forcing most families to make difficult decisions on the safety of child care and school settings long before there’s increased testing capacity or scientific certainty. At a time when the traditional classroom may not be a viable option, we must figure out new ways to invest in our children. In the words of University of Chicago Professor James Heckman, “The highest rate of return in early childhood development comes from investing as early as possible, from birth through age five” during the brain’s early development of cognitive skills. These skills, including attentiveness motivation, self-control and sociability are the tools our kids need to become productive citizens.
There’s no time to lose!