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Scaling barriers to report on pandemic’s impact on California’s children

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

Scaling barriers to report on pandemic’s impact on California’s children

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A student adjusts her facemask at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California in November 2020
A student adjusts her facemask at St. Joseph Catholic School in La Puente, California in November 2020
(Photo by Frederic J. Brown/AFP via Getty Images)

“We really just don’t know,” a program director in Los Angeles told me when I asked about the impact of COVID-19 on the youngest children in her community. 

While education data collected on older kids has been plentiful (grades, attendance, test scores) much less is known about the pandemic’s impact on children under 5. We do know that children’s earliest experiences in school matter, and that things like hunger, poverty and early trauma can have serious impacts on a child’s trajectory as they enter school and throughout their lives. When I set out on this reporting project, I wanted to document impacts of the pandemic on the youngest, most vulnerable children in California’s education system. I feared their experiences would be left out of policy conversations about recovery. 

As an education reporter focused on early childhood, I knew that young children’s experiences are often underreported and that this was particularly true for children from California’s diverse immigrant communities who make up a large and growing portion of kids in the state. I also knew from experience that the adults in those children's lives — their parents, teachers and caregivers — are less likely to be heard by journalists, and more likely to be from vulnerable communities themselves. Yet, as the ones closest to young children, they know the most about what children need to recover from this traumatic year. 

To understand these questions, I set out to gather attendance and enrollment data in preschool and Head Start in Los Angeles County and reached out to teachers, administrators, caregivers and parents. 

This reporting was challenging for many reasons, starting with the fact that I undertook this project during a stay-at-home order and had to do most of it without leaving my house. 

Unlike the data the state collects in its public school system (mostly for kids 5 and up), the data collected on kids birth through 5 is notoriously siloed across dispersed programs and agencies. This makes it hard to analyze or to understand what kind of experience children are having or how the pandemic’s disruptions were impacting particular groups of children — from families with low-incomes or those from immigrant or other ethnic communities. 

Compounding this, the particular circumstances of the pandemic were making the indicators we did have murky. What did it mean for a 4-year-old to be “enrolled” for example in Head Start? What counted as attendance? Was the student actually showing up when preschool was online? How often? And was the experience they or their family were having at all comparable to the rich learning experiences and support services Head Start usually provides for children and families? How were teachers collecting information? It turned out to vary quite a bit, which made comparisons challenging.

On top of challenges with the data analysis, the people from whom I was requesting data and interviews were all in crisis. This was true from the PIO officers at school districts to the preschool teachers to caseworkers to parents. Finding time in their day to talk with a journalist and answer even simple requests or emails was a huge challenge. 

My sources were personally worried about the well-being of their own families. And they were working within financially strapped public systems that were breaking down amidst pressure to serve the enormous needs of families and communities. Everything was being reinvented: schools became food pantries; child development experts were learning video conferencing software intended for business executives; parents were struggling to put food on the table and at the same time providing child care for nieces, neighbors, and children of friends working in health care or agriculture. People were often at their breaking points. Tears during my interviews became the norm.

While mainstream news stories focused on upper-income parents who were demanding school for older children reopen or on teens who were zooming into high school from breaks at their new service jobs, I wondered how younger children from immigrant communities were faring. Where were children whose parents were essential workers? Who was caring for them if their regular child care center or preschool was closed? How were families making ends meet? For children who missed essential early kindergarten experiences, what would their teachers need to support them in first grade?

The pandemic restrictions over the months I was reporting this story got worse instead of better. While I had initially assumed I’d be able to undertake reporting trips and visit preschools or kindergarten classrooms and child care centers to talk with teachers and parents in-person, as the months wore on and COVID-19 surged, travel still seemed perilous. Many schools were still closed for students and certainly to outside visitors. Those reporting trips began to seem increasingly unlikely. 

Here are a few things that helped me get past the barriers I encountered while reporting this piece: 

Patience. It took me months to get data about attendance and enrollment drops in public programs for young children. I waited.

Persistence. No one was returning my phone calls or emails. Sources that were usually responsive, now were not. I continued to call and email. When sources didn’t respond, I tried others or called again. I kept a spreadsheet of my contact attempts. 

Relationships. Work I had done in the past to gain the trust of teachers and advocates in the field helped me connect to other teachers, administrators and community advocates who were working closely with young children and families from immigrant communities. The next best thing to in-person reporting, these in-depth phone conversations helped me feel more comfortable interpreting data about enrollment and attendance in communities I was reporting on, and to decide what stories to include in the piece. 

I also used these sources to check my data and analysis. Did this sound right to them? Did it jibe with their own understanding of children’s needs locally? These checks and double checks are increasingly important to me as a white reporter working in communities of color and I try to listen closely and be responsive to the feedback I get. As an outsider, am I getting things right? How do my own biases affect what I choose to include and what I don’t? What have I missed or not heard right? What else should I be asking? Whose voices are missing?

Adaptation. This story changed quite a bit over time as I saw the data and heard directly from teachers and advocates. Some data was not available or reliable. Some of my hypotheses did not bear out. Nuance and precision weren’t possible in many cases. Some sources were reluctant to talk in the middle of fraught teacher’s union negotiations. I moved on. There were so many people to speak with and so many different angles on this story to report. 

Listening in on conversations about young children as the pandemic wears on continues to be so valuable. I become a better listener and a stronger writer the more I hear. While so much of my analysis and reporting was not included in the story I wrote, the circles of inquiry helped my story land where it did and will inform future reporting. I wasn’t able to get into classrooms last year. I’m hopeful for next.

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